Originally, I wrote a draft of this essay last year for a special roundtable on important issues in “play and competition” for the journal NANO: New American Notes Online. However, I wanted to send these thoughts into the world as soon as possible—especially in light of tonight’s Law and Order: Special Victims Unit episode based on the experiences of Gamergate victims (NBC, Wednesday, Feb. 9, 9:00PM). I will write an update to the essay below as part of an upcoming Nano roundtable in a future issue of that journal.
If you are not familiar with Gamergate or how it has developed over time, you can catch up with these reports: Gawker; The New York Times here, here, and here; The Guardian; Newsweek; The Washington Post; and ArsTechnica (lots of coverage).
An Entreaty to Gamergate: Giving Ourselves Permission to Change for an Inclusive Video Game Culture
Jason W. Ellis
I recently visited Adam Yauch Park near where I live in Brooklyn, New York, because I sought inspiration for this essay about inclusion and video game culture. As you might know, Yauch, whose stage name was M.C.A. and who was a founding member of the hip-hop group The Beastie Boys, passed away from cancer in 2012. I felt that visiting this park in a corner of Brooklyn where I now call home would help ground my thinking about the way exclusionary actions and beliefs threaten and continue to threaten video game culture as a community for anyone who likes to play games, talk about games, and build games. What drew me to this park is that fact that M.C.A. and The Beastie Boys represent something that I feel to be very important to the human condition: the ability to change over time, admit to past mistakes, and make amends for those transgressions. As you might know, The Beastie Boy’s infused sexist attitudes (e.g., “Girls” and other lyrics—notably on songs from their first album) and homophobic prejudices in a proposed album title (Licensed to Ill was originally titled Don’t Be a F****t). As they grew older and listened to challenges from their fans and critics, they reflected on their past actions and changed their attitudes and behavior for the better—to be more inclusive and respectful to others by changing lyrics during performances (Tyler-Ameen par. 10) and writing socially and politically progressive songs on their later albums (e.g., “Song for the Man” on Hello Nasty, and “It Takes Time to Build,” “Right Right Now Now” on their album To the 5 Boroughs, and “In a World Gone Mad,” released online as an mp3 download).
The Beastie Boy’s shift toward inclusivity and away from the exclusivity of their early career provides a useful guide for thinking about one of the most pressing issues in video game culture made paramount by the largely misogynistic Gamergate movement. In particular, two songs come to mind where M.C.A. uses his low, course voice—the most mature voice of the trio—to establish The Beastie Boy’s program for inclusivity. In “Sure Shot” from 1994’s Ill Communication, M.C.A. sings, “I want to say a little something that’s long overdue/The disrespect to women has got to be through/To all the mothers and sisters and wives and friends/I want to over my love and respect to the end.” These lines promote the idea that empathy, understanding, and welcoming constitute respect for others. Related to this is an idea that comes from “It Takes Time to Build” from 2004’s To the 5 Boroughs, where M.C.A. lays it down: “Waiting like a batter who is on deck/When it’s time to wreck shop then shop I’ll wreck/So let’s calibrate and check our specs/We need a little shift on over to the left.” While M.C.A. explicitly takes issue with Bush-II era politics, his entreaty for a shift to the left—of opening minds instead of closing them, of listening instead of speaking, of empathizing instead of victim blaming—is something that we must continue to strive toward if we are to move into the future constructively rather than destructively.
The ongoing actions taken by misogynistic Gamergate supporters and instigators against feminist voices—voices calling for equality and righting cultural stereotypes, prejudices, and attitudes—in the video game community demonstrate the pressing need of inclusivity. I define inclusivity to be the unconditional acceptance of everyone as members of a community of game developers, game players, and game fans. In all of these overlapping groups, inclusivity particularly applies to the unconditional acceptance of historically marginalized groups from gaming culture, including women, LGBTQ persons, people of color, and persons with disabilities. To illustrate the marginalization as evident in the production and consumption of games, consider that while 48% of game players are female (ESA 3), only 22% of game developers are female (IGDA, Developers 9). Or, as Patrick Yacco reports from an interview with game designer and critic Mattie Brice: “While there is little data regarding LGBT characters and players, Brice believes that ‘most developers find it too much of a risk to include queer people in games, even when it comes to avatars with little to no narrative arc in the games’ stories,’ leading to a paucity of queer characters. She adds, ‘The majority of queer people are stereotypes many people are tired of seeing’” (Yacco par. 8). Or, at 79%, the overwhelming majority of game developers are white (ESA 9), and at 75.1%, the overwhelming majority of video game characters are white (Williams et. al. 825). This is despite the fact that some evidence shows that African-American and Latino gamers spend more time playing (Packwood par. 8), are more likely to purchase games more frequently than their white counterparts (Good par. 3), and have a greater percentage of homes with video games than their white counterparts (Nielsen 5). Furthermore, Williams et. al. conclude their study of gender and race that, “Nevertheless, the current study demonstrates that the world of game characters is highly unrepresentative of the actual population and even of game players. For developers, this is a missed opportunity. For players, it is a potential source of identity-based problems” (Williams et. al. 831). Or, the fact that the conclusion of the IGDA’s 2004 white paper on game accessibility begins with this paragraph acknowledging the need for political will to potentially overcome financial over ethical concerns: “It goes without saying that the efforts of game accessibility must have a realistic financial grounding, otherwise they risk not become implemented in mainstream games. What is important is: to achieve this we need to work on a political level” (IDGA, Accessibility 26). Yet, the report backpedals in the next paragraph and again asserts the financial calculus: “Efforts of individuals or small companies to create accessible games are important and interesting from many perspectives. However, to get mainstream games to be accessible to as many as possible we need first to resolve the financial issues, which are related to the time and effort accessibility development takes, and the increased number of sales you get by doing it” (IDGA, Accessibility 26). This sampling represents only a small part of the quantified data regarding marginalization in gaming culture. Reading online screeds, comments, and tweets reveals the semi-anonymous vitriol against inclusion of these groups. Listening to the lived experiences of these marginalized peoples and the challenges to building their own communities and attempting to enter exclusionary communities provides a deeper insight that these other sources cannot capture.
Obviously, one person excluded from gaming culture might occupy one or more of these marginalized identities. Their exclusion from gamer culture takes the form of misogyny, homophobia, racism, religious intolerance, and an overwhelming lack of empathy, understanding, or even acknowledgement. Some exclusive practices are organized by anonymous mobs of ethically unhinged persons who threaten anyone, any idea, or any game seen as antagonistic or different than those games celebrating male power fantasies supported by violence.
For example, Gamergate (or #gamergate on Twitter) continues to play out online and in real life (of course, both being lived experience). What began as false allegations by an ex-boyfriend against the award winning indie game developer of Depression Quest, Zoe Quinn, exploded into an unrelenting assault on women and their supporters dubbed by Gamergate supporters as “Social Justice Warriors.” Organizing on sites including 4Chan and Github, Gamergate supporters organized attacks against anyone seen as potentially upending, challenging, or critiquing male power fantasies in games or game fandom. Instead of recognizing the work of Quinn and others (such as developer of Revolution 60, Brianna Wu; editor-at-large of Gamasutra, Leigh Alexander; or founder of Feminist Frequency and creator of “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games” video series, Anita Sarkeesian) as adding to gaming culture, they were seen as threats to the status quo needing silencing or in the most extreme elimination. Continuing over the past several months (though, the threats extend further back), people have been doxed (having their private information released online), harassed in the worst possible ways, and threatened with assault, rape, and murder. Even more alarmingly, as of a few moments ago, even mass murder was leveled as a threat against Utah State University where Sarkeesian was scheduled to speak. She has since canceled, because the police declined to perform security checks due to Utah’s open-carry-gun laws, which understandably made Sarkeesian feel unsafe in an already threatening situation (Wingfield par. 2). As M.C.A. entreats us, “the disrespect to women has got to be through.”
The disrespect and exclusion of women from game culture (space here does not permit me to further describe other examples such as the “fake geek girl”) is only one (albeit alarmingly so) component of the overall exclusion of Othered individuals from gaming culture. Exclusion leveled against women, LGBTQ folks, people of color, ethnic groups, and religious persons confront largely explicit exclusion from participating in games culture writ large. Stereotypes presented in message board visual memes, hate speech written and spoken, and exclusive cliques, teams, and guilds all serve to warn marginalized persons that they are unwelcomed participants in game culture.
The other form that exclusion takes, of course, is implicit. On the one hand, these are the game design decisions that developers, publishers, or advertisers make (the tail wags the dog as surely in video games as in other spheres). They include choices such as: Who is the hero? Who is the villain? Who are non-playable characters (NPCs)? Where does the story take place? What level of control do players have in the visual appearance, gender, sexual orientation, race, etc. of their playable character? How central are these considerations to the development of the narrative and its interactive progression? When developers are overwhelming white and male (cite), they might not know from their privileged position how important considerations are for audience identification, engagement, and empowerment afforded by providing the possibility of identifying with in-game characters, nuanced and informed handling of cultures and identities as part of a game narrative, and supporting an inclusive and respectful community of gamers.
Another implicit concern has to do with issues of accessibility and accommodation. To what extent are video games and video game platforms playable by persons with disabilities? To what extent are gamer communities receptive to the voices and needs of gamers with disabilities? Do message boards for game fan communities adhere to usability guidelines to enable everyone regardless of challenges to participate in this shared culture?
These exclusions—explicit and implicit—are opportunities for us to confront and correct them in the work that we do together as faculty, students, and the public. Video games are an important part of our culture that we should bring into the classroom as new texts to experience, confront, question, and in a word, grok (meaning to understand completely and holistically within a larger historical and cultural context—see Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land). Together with our students, we can explore how games and game culture are a part of real life and lived experience. We can discover how we learn from video games and how we have lessons to offer to others about games as they currently exist and as they have yet to be made. We can critique how game culture as it has evolved to be exclusionary is not how it has always been or how it always will be. Simply helping our students understand that their choice to behave a certain way to others in game culture is a decision that they should make after having the tools and knowledge to make informed and ethical decisions will be an important shift, as M.C.A. puts it, “over to the left.”
Deeply embedded in this challenge is an observation by the celebrated science fiction writer Philip K. Dick, who writes, “A human being without the proper empathy or feeling is the same as an android built so as to lack it, either by design or mistake. We mean, basically, someone who does not care about the fate that his fellow living creatures fall victim to; he stands detached, a spectator, acting out by his indifference John Donne’s theorem that ‘No man is an island,’ but giving the theorem a twist: That which is a mental and moral island is not a man” (Dick 211). For Dick, it is our capacity for empathy that makes us human and not machine-like androids. However, he cautions us that human beings can become android-like if we lack empathy and ignore the suffering of others. Social justice advocate Mark Bracher argues in his body of work that literature is one important avenue to teach students how to feel empathy for the suffering of others. In a recent essay, he asserts, “From the perspective of these and other philosophers [Sandra Bartky, Richard Rorty, Martha Nussbaum, and Robert Solomon], the question of how the study of literature might contribute to the production of social justice is thus not a question of how it can inculcate new values, provide new knowledge, or develop new analytical skills but of how it might help people overcome their indifference to, and instead experience compassion for, the billions of people who live in misery on our planet. If literary study could systematically help students overcome their indifference to the suffering that surrounds them and experience compassion for the sufferers, it would make a significant contribution to social justice” (Bracher 471). Likewise, I argue that video games provide an even more important cultural point of contact for these issues and for teaching students how to empathize, because 1) video game culture as it now stands is overwhelmingly exclusionary and provides many engaging teachable examples, 2) the interactive aspect of game play provides different kinds of characterological, narratological, and psychological engagements on the part of the player, and 3) video games are significant carriers of culture for an increasing number of people worldwide of all age groups.
As part of our engagement with students playing video games, we need to help them reflect on what they do in video games. Of course, this is not a concern for all video games, but it is for the popular first-person shooter (FPS), real-time strategy (RTS), and other games brokering violence. In my previous work, using cosmopolitanism as a lens is one approach to rethinking and re-engaging a video game apparently meant to be something else. For example, World of Warcraft. “which is overtly about war, death, and defense of one’s own race and faction, carries an implicit cosmopolitanism hidden within the game’s mechanics (quests), in-game achievements (associated with travel and exploring the entire world of Azeroth), and the over-arching game narrative in which the two opposing factions, which are comprised of the only playable races, tentatively cooperate against the subversively encroaching Burning Legion. Furthermore, it is these cosmopolitan imbued in-game elements that may serve an educational and pedagogical function for game players” (Ellis 157). That is, helping students see others as human beings sharing the same world despite arbitrary borders. More to the point with Dick’s ideas is the need of teaching empathy. While video games are often registered as mindless fun, we need to work with our students to identify with and consider Othered characters in games so that they might feel something instead of tuning out their empathy for others and disabling their ethical compass. Through games, we can help our students be more human and less like androids. Similarly, we can work with the public using outreach in person or with new media outreach (Twitter, YouTube, blogging, etc.).
As far as how digital play might play a role in restructuring how we structure learning, I am sure that it will in some way. More learning is taking place now via games and reward/achievement systems than ever before. More research is taking place on how the reward centers of the brain might be harnessed to improve learning outcomes, too. My concern about these developments is three fold. First, we need qualitative alongside quantitative assessment of student learning outcomes, and we need to be a part of the process that develops the implementation of these pedagogical methods instead of having them imposed from less qualitative disciplines. Second, we cannot ignore the material conditions of our students and their access to technology that supports studying digital play. Also, we cannot assume anything about our students’ backgrounds and experiences that inform their engagement with digital play. Third, we cannot ignore the material conditions of the faculty who design, implement, and improve gamification of learning environments. Faculty cannot be exploited to pursue the next buzz-worthy wave of digital pedagogy.
Finally, I think the most important lesson for all involved—faculty, students, and the public—is that, like The Beastie Boys, we are not bound by our initial conditions. M.C.A. and his band mates Ad-Rock (Adam Horovitz) and Mike-D (Michael Diamond) became who they are through learning and experience. In 1986 when their first major album License to Ill was released, they were disrespectful towards women and LGBTQ people, but they became inclusionary over time—admitting to past mistakes and misjudgments and working to put things right through their rhymes, public work, and open acknowledgments. For example, Ad-Rock published an open letter to the gay and lesbian community in Time Out New York on December 16, 1999, in which he wrote, “There are no excuses. But time has healed our stupidity. … We hope that you’ll accept this long overdue apology” (qtd. in MTV News Staff par. 1). The Beastie Boys can serve as an exemplary model for how we should all aspire to be—permit ourselves to change our minds based on new evidence, connect with people who we might not have made connections with before, attempt to understand others who we might believe are different than ourselves, welcome others, and finally, encourage others to follow our example and actions as inclusive teachers, designers, makers, players, and critics.
The Beastie Boys. “It Takes Time to Build.” To the 5 Boroughs. Capital, 2004. MP3.
—. “Sure Shot.” Ill Communication. Capital, 1994. MP3.
Bracher, Mark. “Teaching for Social Justice: Reeducating the Emotions Through Literary Study.” jac 26.3-4 (2006): 463-512. Web. 14 Oct. 2014.
Dick, Philip K. “Man, Android, and Machine.” In The Shifting Realities of Philip K. Dick: Selected Literary and Philosophical Writings. New York: Vintage Books, 1995. 211-232. Print.
Ellis, Jason W. “Engineering a Cosmopolitan Future: Race, Nation, and World of Warcraft.” In The Postnational Fantasy: Essays on Postcolonialism, Cosmopolitics and Science Fiction. Eds. Masood Ashraf Raja, Jason W. Ellis, and Swaralipi Nandi. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2011. Print. 156-173.
Entertainment Software Association. Essential Facts about the Computer and Video Game Industry: 2014 Sales, Demographic, and Usage Data. theesa.com. 2014. Web. 15 Oct. 2014.
Good, Owen. “Survey: Hispanic Gamers More Inclined to Buy Games.” Kotaku. 1 April 2010. Web. 15 Oct. 2014.
MTV News Staff. “Beastie Boy Apologizes for Past Lyrics.” MTV.com. 17 December 1999. Web. 9 Feb. 2015.
International Game Developers Association (IGDA). Accessibility in Games: Motivations and Approaches. igda.org. 29 June 2004. Web. 15 Oct. 2014.
—. Developer Satisfaction Survey 2014: Summary Report. igda.org. 25 June 2014. Web. 15 Oct. 2014.
Nielsen. Ethnic Trends in Media. Nielsen.com. March 2009. Web. 15 Oct. 2014.
Packwood, Damon. “Hispanics and Blacks Missing in Gaming Industry.” New American Media. 13 Sept. 2011. Web. 15 Oct. 2014.
Tyler-Ameen, Daoud. “Adam Yauch, Co-Founder of The Beastie Boys, Dies.” NPR. 4 May 2012. Web. 10 Feb. 2015.
Williams, Dmitri, Nicole Martins, Mia Consalvo, and James D. Ivory. “The Virtual Census: Representations of Gender, Race, and Age in Video Games.” New Media Society 11.5 (2009): 815-834. Web. 15 Oct. 2014.
Wingfield, Nick. “Feminist Critics of Video Games Facing Threats in ‘Gamergate’ Campaign.” The New York Times 15 Oct. 2014. Web. 15 Oct. 2014.
Yacco, Patrick. “Game Developers Conference Tackles LGBT Representation in Video Games.” The Advocate. 14 Mar. 2014. Web. 15 Oct. 2014.