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Super Mario Bros., Bayonetta 2, and nine other games that explain #GamerGate

Play these 11 games to better understand the controversy and issues behind #GamerGate.
Play these 11 games to better understand the controversy and issues behind #GamerGate.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Don't look now, but #GamerGate, the online movement ostensibly about ethics in games journalism that was never able to escape its roots of harassment of women, is slowly but surely dispersing. Yes, members of the movement are as active as ever at subreddits like KotakuInAction, and plenty of people tweet using the hashtag every day.

But the movement hasn't had a real "victory" — or even a pseudo one — in weeks, and feminist games critic Anita Sarkeesian's appearance on The Colbert Report seems to have largely caused the movement to begin falling apart. Key members at the forefront of the group have been either removing or distancing themselves from it, and, in general, the group now seems to exist solely to propagate a blood feud against Gawker Media, get angry at people for obviously hyperbolic tweets, and write Wikipedia articles.

But at its start, #GamerGate claimed to be about how consideration of political and social issues had affected games writing, causing it to stop being "just" about the video games. Indeed, the movement's mascot — the 4Chan-designed Vivian James, whose creation and objectification say as much about the movement as anything else — bears as her catchphrase some variation on "Let's just play video games," with the suggestion that discussions of feminism or other social justice issues have no place in what is otherwise a friendly community of gaming fans.

That idea in and of itself largely misses the point of feminist criticism (or what Sarkeesian is doing), but let's take #GamerGate at its word. Let's play some video games that might explain what spurred the movement and the controversy over its tactics.

1) Super Mario Bros.

Video games certainly existed before Super Mario Bros., but so much of what that game did became the basis of so many games afterward that it necessarily looms large over any discussion of the history of the movement. One of the most effortlessly fun games ever created, nearly everybody has played a little Mario at one time or another.

But the initial video in Sarkeesian's series about tropes in video games is about the idea of the damsel in distress, the woman who exists within a gaming universe solely to get in trouble, so the male hero can rescue her. And Sarkeesian bases much of her argument on Princess Peach in the Mario games because, well, what a perfect example of the form. This was by no means the first game to have a "save the princess" plot, nor is Peach's damsel status something that should necessarily be held against such a fun game.

But what is interesting is the way this game codified the idea of women as a prize to be won, rather than characters with their own agency. And the story of female developers and critics hoping to break out of that particular box drives much of what this controversy has been about.

2) King's Quest IV: The Perils of Rosella

Odds are good you've never heard of this game, but it's a good example of something worth remembering. We tend to think of the stereotypical "gamer" as a teenage or early 20-something man, who likes to play games with ample amounts of violence and enjoys trash talking competitors online. But the industry wasn't always aimed at that guy, nor did it always aim to please him.

Take, for instance, this 1988 graphic adventure game from Sierra On-line, a company that specialized in the form. Its designer, Roberta Williams, was one of the most powerful people in the gaming industry in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, and the form of the graphic adventure — which usually involved a little animated character wandering a colorful landscape and solving puzzles using objects found there — allowed less for action and more for storytelling. The form, at that time, catered less to graphics-hungry action gamers and more to a family audience, because adults with kids were often the people who had money to burn on gaming computers.

King's Quest IV was particularly notable for featuring Rosella, the daughter of the original game's protagonist, King Graham. In its story, it gave Rosella a quest that had little to do with romance and more to do, instead, with saving her family and kingdom. It was a massive hit, and at the time, it was seen as having proved that women could be big-name game designers and game protagonists. How quickly the industry forgot.

3) Mortal Kombat

Much of #GamerGate's angry pushback against so-called "social justice warriors" stems from perceived fears of censorship. And while that might seem ridiculous to anyone who watches a Sarkeesian video and sees very mild feminist criticism, the ideas don't occur in a vacuum. Instead, they occur amid the understanding of the politics of games from the 1990s, when gamers banded together on the nascent internet to define themselves in opposition to those who said their hobby was too violent and caused things like school shootings. A man named Jack Thompson actually managed to make noise about getting violent games banned by the government — something that actually would have been censorship.

The most notable early flare-up of these fault lines occurred around the fighting game Mortal Kombat, which featured copious amounts of gore. It looks rather tame today, but at the time, it caused an uproar among parents' watchdog groups. (Nintendo went so far as to remove most of the gore from its version of the game.) Yet despite the bad media coverage and political opposition, gamers largely held together and kept their hobby from undergoing government censorship, at least in the US. But that sense of political attack would endure into the next century.

4) Kane & Lynch: Dead Men

Though they were tacked on to the movement that would become #GamerGate relatively late, concerns about ethics in games journalism have also been present in the gaming world for years now. Consider the case of Jeff Gerstmann from Gamespot. Gerstmann gave the terrible action game Kane and Lynch a score of 6 out of 10, prompting threats to pull advertising dollars from Gamespot by the game's publisher, Eidos. Gamespot's management team, terrified, removed Gerstmann from his role, which ultimately led to Gerstmann leaving to start his own site, the very successful Giant Bomb (which, ironically, now shares a corporate parent with Gamespot).

The close, even incestuous, relationship between games companies and the gaming press is at the heart of any question of games journalism ethics, and Gerstmann's exit from Gamespot is still the shadiest story among many. The enthusiast press requires advertising dollars from that which it covers, and that gives advertisers outsized influence on content. It was a problem when this happened; it remains a problem now.

5) Resident Evil 5

When the initial trailer for this zombie shooter went live in 2007, numerous publications questioned whether it was OK to have a white dude gunning down armies of African enemies — even if they were monsters. The controversy opened up those hidden political fault lines within gaming.

As #GamerGate supporter Stanley McCatty explained to me in September: "The gaming scene was so diverse that people had failed to notice that huge divides in political opinions were just sitting there out in the open, unexplored. The most ‘serious' thing about a mainstream game before RE5 was whether or not it would be violent and whether or not the breasts on the women could jiggle. We hadn't noticed that so many gamers were bitterly right wing, or fanatically left wing until the conversation sprouted up."

6) Depression Quest

The name Zoe Quinn is at the center of #GamerGate because it began with a disgruntled blog post by a vengeful ex-boyfriend — one that posters on 4Chan quickly extrapolated into a variety of journalism controversies involving Quinn, even though every single one of these theories was eventually found to be baseless. (#GamerGate supporters often repeat them as if they hadn't been disproved.)

So who is Quinn? She's the designer behind the terrific Depression Quest, a game that simulates what it's like to have depression by gradually forcing "you," the player, to choose from a more and more limited set of options as you try to battle to go to work, or meet with friends, or even just get out of bed. The game, which is far from a day-brightener, met with opposition from the beginning, thanks to gamers who turned to their hobby for escapism, or didn't like Quinn's outsized persona.

And yet Depression Quest has close ties to graphic adventures, like King's Quest IV. Women were at the forefront of innovative storytelling in games in the ‘80s, and they are again in the 2010s.

7) Grand Theft Auto V

One of the reasons #GamerGate felt less like a grassroots organization and more like a new name to a faceless mob of online harassment to many who covered it was for one simple reason: women who dare to participate in the games industry have been harassed for years now.

Consider Carolyn Petit, a trans woman who reviewed the game Grand Theft Auto V for Gamespot, scoring it a 9 out of 10, docking a point for what she saw as the game's misogynistic treatment of female characters. Commenters called her names, sent her angry threats, and organized a petition to have her fired — and all because she gave a game what amounted to an A- instead of an A.

8) Bioshock Infinite

You might have noticed that in the two review score controversies discussed so far, the score has not been all that far off of a perfect 10. That's because, for a variety of reasons, the goalposts have been moved, year after year, so the bottom half of a 10 point scale is effectively unusable for plenty of publications. (See also: Kane and Lynch.)

Or, as Tevis Thompson puts it in his provocative piece on the depressing uniformity of the reviews for Bioshock Infinite (which he dubs the worst game of 2013):

The question is not: why do none of these reviews agree with me?  It is: why do they all agree with each other?  Where is the diversity of opinion?  Where is the spirited debate?  In the aggregate, it becomes clear that the problem is not any one review.  It's all the reviews.

9) Gone Home

#GamerGate has been less a conflict about the politics of games, or political criticism, and more a conflict about the very nature of games. And a game that frequently comes up in this regard is the excellent, eerie 2013 release Gone Home. #GamerGate's complaint about the game is that if you know where to look — or have a walkthrough — you can "finish" this game in under a half-hour.

But Gone Home, which involves a woman coming home after a year abroad, only to find her entire family not at home, isn't about completing a quest. It's about having an experience, about exploring this familiar space and finding it suddenly unfamiliar. It uses period detail and shadow to suggest another world entirely, hidden within our mundane one, and its resolution, when properly built to, is enormously cathartic.

Nobody is saying that everybody has to like Gone Home. But the rejection of it by many in #GamerGate speaks again to how the movement is less interested in video games as a whole than in a very specific definition of them that has less room for art games like Depression Quest and Gone Home. It speaks, once again, to the way that critics often have a greater appreciation for out-of-the-way titles that take an off-the-beaten-path approach to storytelling than the mass audience does. This rarely causes huge anger among movie fans. Why is it so much more apparent among those who love games?

10) Kim Kardashian Hollywood

Kim Kardashian Hollywood, a monstrously successful mobile game, over the summer made the real-world version of its protagonist hundreds of millions of dollars and underlined just how much the stereotypical view of the "gamer" is changing. Really, as King's Quest shows, the stereotypical gamer was only the audience catered to for about a decade, but that status quo gained its own inertia. Much of what drives #GamerGate, then, isn't just a reaction to bad journalism or even ingrained misogyny (though both impulses exist). Much of what drives it is about the changing face of gaming itself, the way that mobile platforms are opening it up to audiences that wouldn't have been as interested in gaming in years prior.

That, incidentally, is the point of the Leigh Alexander essay that so angered gamers early in #GamerGate. Many gamers hated the way Alexander seemed to play into the most pernicious stereotypes about them. But beneath the piece's rhetoric is one unmistakable point: the audience for gaming is changing rapidly, and developers don't need to cater to the stereotypical gamer to capture it anymore.

11) Bayonetta 2

But why are #GamerGate supporters so concerned with the idea of "objective" reviews that give good scores in the first place? The answer lies here, in a release that caused the controversy to flare up all over again last month, thanks to a 7.5 score from Polygon (a sister publication of Vox) that docked points for the game's purported sexism. Bayonetta 2 is undeniably well-designed, with great physics and action choreography, but it's also got a seriously objectified female protagonist.

Even those who are concerned about better representations of women in games couldn't agree on this one, with some (including Sarkeesian) falling on the side of Bayonetta being simply too much and others thinking her presentation was a kind of powerful femininity in and of itself (or, perhaps, a winking parody of the way other games present women).

And yet the arguments over the Polygon review advanced by #GamerGate constantly bring up something disquieting about the games industry: publishers often base bonus pay of those who work on games on whether or not those games attain certain aggregate scores on Metacritic. In theory, perhaps, this could work, but in practice, it's mostly resulted in a system where publishers try to game the system to get as high of Metacritic scores as possible, and fans know that's exactly what's happening. That means that any low score is met with cries not just of the reviewer being wrong, but of the reviewer messing with some poor game developer's livelihood.

What's interesting here is that in so many of these controversies, #GamerGate supporters, by and large, don't turn their rage toward the video game publisher who sets up an impossible playing field but anyone else who might upset that status quo. It's notable that #GamerGate's chief adversaries haven't been major publishers but, rather, indie developers and online games publications. And it's also notable that #GamerGate keeps pointing to reviews from a site called Christ Centered Gamer as an example of how to handle moral qualms "correctly."

But saying how a review should or shouldn't be written cuts against a form that's inherently up to the individual writer, just as indie developers fall under fire for trying things outside of the gaming norm. #GamerGate purports to be all about inclusion, and it often is — just so long as you toe the line of what it believes to be a "game" or "review" exactly. And if not, well, all bets are off.

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