What the hell is going on with gamers right now?
The past several weeks have seen an extraordinary amount of vitriol between some game fans, game makers, and game writers. That anger has started to spill out of traditional gamer-internet silos and onto social networks, and people without a direct stake in gaming have taken notice. It’s prompted some hard questions for game culture, and a lot of soul-searching.
Though the larger conflict currently playing out on the gaming internet is enormous in its implications for the medium, it has taken the form of a handful of emotionally-charged and deeply personal spats. What they all have in common is that they pit anonymous guardians of a culture only they can define against creators and writers who envision, and have already helped to bring about, a far more expansive vision of gaming.
These spats aren’t trivial—it’s gotten remarkably nasty; Anita Sarkeesian, the aforementioned cultural critic, left her home this week because of direct personal threats from anonymous trolls. But, as is often the case with infighting among gamers, it’s hard to find perspective. How did it get this way? And how can someone not steeped in game culture sort it out? Well, first of all, forget for a minute about game culture.
A thought experiment: Imagine, if you will, that movies were only about 50 years old. Imagine that movies, technologically complex and requiring enormously expensive equipment to make, were invented by upper middle class and predominantly white computer engineers at big research universities, the only places with the requisite resources and brains. Imagine that the first movies, because they were made by said 1960s computer engineers, were only science fiction.
Imagine that as movies spread from laboratories to theaters over the next decade, the people who naturally gravitated to them were people who liked science fiction and new technology and had disposable income and time: young white suburban dorks. Imagine thousands and thousands of young white suburban dorks taking to movie houses after school every day and spending hour after hour there in the dark, just watching, pretending, escaping.
Now, imagine if we came up with a cultural term for them: Moviegoers.
Then, because movies were still only about science fiction and sometimes about fantastical make-believe quasi-medieval places, marketers and journalists started using the language of those pretend places to describe movies and moviegoers. ‘Moviegoers invade the mall!’ ‘Movies conquer the living room!’ ‘Revenge of the movie-loving nerds!’
Imagine that teenagers who were too shy or awkward to say a word to their peers and too apathetic to say a word to their parents spent hours and hours every night watching these newfangled movies. We might have questions. What weird things were happening in their brains, with all of this violent make-believe? We might stigmatize them! And moviegoers, who thought, rightly, ‘there’s nothing wrong with us, we’re normal people, just dorky and shy and male,’ took that stigma and made it into an identity, and that identity conflated the content of the early movies with the medium itself.
But then imagine that over the past fifteen years, movies got a lot easier to make, and also people figured out that they could and even should be about all kinds of things. Imagine moviegoers grew up, started having kids, and wanted movies that wouldn’t be boring to their daughters. So movies changed! And then it turned out that there were black moviegoers, and gay moviegoers, and black gay female moviegoers, and now because movies were easier to make and distribute, they started to clamor for and make movies in which they were represented. And because it was good business and good publicity, the big corporations that made the most profitable movies started to do the same thing (slowly).
And then people started realizing that film was just a medium, with no inherent bias towards any group of people (except maybe old and/or disabled people), and that like any other medium, movies could eventually be used to express all kinds of things for all kinds of people. And because all the word “moviegoer” literally meant was “one who goes to the movies”, that word obviously lost a lot of its meaning, because everyone started going to the movies, including short, bad ones about Kim Kardashian helping people become celebrities. Movies for everyone: a good thing!
How would the original moviegoing audience — in the pejorative but also prideful sense of the designation — react?
Remember: A major part of the “Moviegoing” identity is predicated solely on being an outsider and enjoying a medium others don’t understand or approve of. Now, a lot of these moviegoers would be overjoyed! ‘The more the merrier!’ ‘Check out what we’ve been up to all these years!’ But a lot of moviegoers would also be defensive, and angry. They would see movies in the theater for people who weren’t them, about things they didn’t care about. And worse: Writers, many of whom were moviegoers just like them, would celebrate these new movies, and the people who made them, and call into question many of the tropes and topics of the old movies, the very tropes and topics that the first moviegoers identified with.
And then imagine that a small group of these angry (but also probably saddened and maybe even a bit scared) moviegoers, given a bold voice by the internet, started trying to discredit and antagonize people who made movies about things they didn’t approve of, and about writers who couldn’t help but want these movies to succeed.
This obviously all seems ridiculous; actual movies are today a democratic medium, easily understood, easily made, easily edited, for everyone. A movie can be about anything; saying someone is a moviegoer means very little except that they go to the movies.
Games, however, are only just on the cusp of that freedom. They’re easier than ever to make, in some forms easier to play, and about an increasing breadth of subjects. And the result, as the critic Dan Golding wrote in a briliant cri de coeur today called The End of the Gamer, that original designation conflating games and their content is apporaching irrelevance:
The last few weeks therefore represent the moment that gamers realised their own irrelevance. This is a cold wind that has been a long time coming, and which has framed these increasingly malicious incidents along the way. Videogames have now achieved a purchase on popular culture that is only possible without gamers.
Today, videogames are for everyone. I mean this in an almost destructive way. Videogames, to read the other side of the same statement, are not for you. You do not get to own videogames. No one gets to own videogames when they are for everyone. They add up to more than any one group.
What Golding is getting at, and what hope I made clear with my long-winded analogy, is that video games are in the process of shedding the assumptions larded on them by their history. They are becoming simply another medium—one with no inherent bias towards any group. In twenty years, it may sound as old-fashioned to call someone a “gamer” as it is to call someone a “moviegoer”. And we may well look back at these few weeks in 2014 as the moment when the medium finally separated from the limitations put on it from outside, and from within.
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