Tuesday 27 September 2016

The myth of the virtuous gamer

One of the bigger game forums has rules about hate groups. If you're a nazi or neo-nazi, you advocate for nazi or neo-nazi causes, or you play devil's advocate, you're banned forever. It's obvious, sensible. I approve of that.

What's interesting is that the only other major group affiliation that shares that status is Gamergate, while for example a supporter of the horrible right-wing American group that calls itself the Tea Party gets the same protected status on the forum as say, a supporter of the British Labour Party. You have to wonder what's going on there.

Now, Gamergate, as what's basically an antifeminist movement, was co-opted pretty early on by the hard right (or alt-right, if you prefer) and you don't have to look very far at all to see horrendous examples of antisemitism and racism and such among its followers.

So you can make an argument, a very strong one, that by association it became a hate group very quickly. And well, it is.

Any fool can see that. It's vile. Even if you buy the initial line that it's a consumer reaction to perceived corruption in the way people write about games on the Internet (and my God, doesn't that sound stupid when you write it out?) in the end it's so tainted by its associations that it's impossible to disentangle them.

But that's true of the Tea Party too! But if you say that on the aforementioned forum, you get a warning for group attacks on members of the forum. Say it enough and they'll ban you.

So you have to wonder how, while the equation Gamergate = Nazis is (now, thanks to its alt-right appropriation) a natural progression, other groups, equally entangled with the far right, equally stinking with racism, sexism, whatever, don't get that treatment.

One idea (and it's an opinion I don't get to take credit for, even though I think it's a solid one with plenty of evidence) is that there is a culture among online gamers that somehow being a gamer makes you a good person. That gaming somehow makes you better.

You see it. Like, the presented idea I've seen several times now that people who play rpgs should be better, more inclusive people, because they spend time pretending to be in other people's shoes (which I think betrays a slight lack of understanding of how fiction works); the opinion that the games community is full of the best people on earth; the idea that the nerd is like some sort of unspoiled island of decency.

When faced with evidence that gamer culture includes people who are clearly not showing goodness and understanding in spades, who are basically the worst, the believers in gamer decency as a thing recoil, hard.

I think there's more to it. It goes deeper.

When the Gamergate thing first broke, one of its original targets for outrage was a succession of articles suggesting that "gamers" as a thing were dead, and the subtext of that was basically that gamer wasn't really a label that mattered any more because games are for everybody, not just a limited demographic, and we're all gamers now.

Now, Gamergate isn't anything if it isn't a valorisation of STEM nerd illiteracy, and on the one hand, you had people with engineering degrees who didn't grasp that point, but plenty of people who, worse, absolutely did grasp that point and felt the cold threat to their sense of self that comes from the core of your identity being threatened.

If you read this blog regularly, you'll know that I have always pushed back, hard, against being called a "geek" or "gamer" and I've got a number of reasons for that, but a big part is that of all the things I could be identified as: working class, bi, a father, a husband, a Christian, a socialist, a pacifist, a support worker, a writer, a poet; the stuff I like in my spare time doesn't even figure as important.

Things based upon where I come from, my vocation, what I believe. The people I love. Who I am.

But if you call yourself a geek or a gamer, and define yourself that way, you're defining yourself by how much stuff you consume. The things you buy. And under late capitalism, I guess that labelling yourself based on the media you consume, on your stuff, that's considered pretty normal. You call yourself a homeowner, a car owner, a Doctor Who fan,1 a gamer, and in this society, somehow consumption is seen as a grounds for identity on a par with your race or your gender or your sexuality.2

I'm going to be honest, yes, I think that's messed up. But everything is messed up. I know that people do identify by their fandoms and their enthusiasms, though, so what am I going to do? It's a lost ontological battle, and not something we're going to be able to fix at this point without a deep-rooted societal change.

When you identify in this way, though, having someone tell you that the category you're in is irrelevant or not what you thought it was, that's an attack on your identity.

But it works other ways too. Any category with which you identify, you're going to want to consider it to be good, however you construe that. So if something threatens the goodness of a label you attach to yourself, they're threatening you. Threatening your sense of self.

Gamergate exists in response to a threat to gamer self-identity; but it is itself a threat. By exemplifying and valorising every one of the very worst stereotypes of the antisocial gamer, by making the smelly loser with a bad beard and hat a palpable Thing again, and a threatening thing associated with implied violence, and pinning that stereotype onto the idea "gamer", Gamergate has created a crisis in the gamer psyche.

In the same way as there's a real temptation for even the most decent of men to go "No, no, no, I wouldn't do that" when approached with evidence of hideous systemic sexism, rape, whatever, as if it were ever about them, the extreme reaction from gamers who aren't horrible people when faced with the spectre of Gamergate is a response to the deep discomfort of thinking your people might not be virtuous, that you might be implicated in that lack of virtue.

And of course gamers aren't virtuous. At least not by default. I mean, I'm assured that they're no worse than anyone else, and the series of godawful examples of horrendous gamer behaviour I've witnessed over the last decade is just bad luck, and I'm willing to accept that. But crucially, liking something enough to buy it and collect it doesn't make you better either.

1Someone saw my DVD shelf with the 130 or so Doctor Who DVDs on it and was like, so you're a Doctor Who fan, then? "No," I said. "I like it too much."

They didn't understand. (back)

2I just realised that in my list of things I identify as, I didn't include "white", but then on the one hand if you have one of those signifiers you tend not to notice because you grow up imagining yourself as a sort of default, and on the other, the sort of people who make a big deal about identifying themselves specifically as white males as a pride thing are almost entirely the very worst people you have ever met. (back)