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Games

Gamergate Opened Fire on Diversity. Its Strategy Blasted Into Politics Too

Todd Martens
Los Angeles Times (TNS)

The strategy belonged to a radical corner of the gaming world that may have provided the winning playbook for the campaign that won the presidential election.

See if this campaign tactic sounds familiar: Rally white men who feel the world is changing too fast, leverage racial bias for the cause, and demean women along the way.

The strategy belonged to a radical corner of the gaming world that may have provided the winning playbook for the campaign that won the presidential election.

“Gamergate” is the term now used to describe the movement in which Internet trolls attacked high-profile people in the game industry if they attempted to change — or even speak out about — the misogynistic themes of video games. They are the gaming world’s radical right, and they’re fighting back against what they see as the onslaught of politically correct culture.

Now at least one of the people who provided a platform for the movement is headed for the White House.

Stephen K. Bannon oversaw the far-right Breitbart News, which published numerous articles about Gamergate, before becoming Donald Trump’s campaign chief executive. One report, from 2014, carried this headline: “Feminist bullies tearing the video game industry apart.” Today, Bannon is Trump’s pick for White House chief strategist and senior counselor.

The trajectories ofTrump and Gamergate could be practically charted by the same graph — guys (for the most part) who a significant portion of the country didn’t take seriously pandered to humanity’s most base instincts and won. Entertainment and politics are increasingly blurred. The president-elect, for instance, regularly tweets about “Saturday Night Live,” and nearly caused a culture war over “Hamilton.”

Bannon once spoke favorably of Darth Vader, seemingly comparing himself to the “Star Wars” villain. Spoken like a strategist, or like someone pandering to his fans?

As Paul Booth, an associate professor at Chicago’s DePaul University who studies fan culture, put it: “You can look at the political race as a fan event.”

The term “Gamergate” emerged as a hashtag in mid-August 2014. It described the attacks, particularly on women in the gaming world, by trolls and eventually their de facto leader Milo Yiannopoulos, who became Gamergate’s Breitbart champion.

The writer electrified his base much the same way as did the Donald Trump campaign, arguing that the mainstream media and those with progressive thoughts simply failed to understand real gamers. “GamerGate,” he wrote, “has exposed both the feminist campaigners and even some gaming journalists as completely out of touch with the very reasons people play games.”

A sort of “drain the swamp” for the digitally connected.

Female game designers and journalists who spoke out about a more inclusive future for the medium were harassed on social media with threats of physical attacks, rape and death. Their emails were leaked (sound familiar?), and details about their personal lives published online.

“Lock her up,” Trump supporters shouted about Hillary Clinton.

“I hope you die,” Gamergate champions tweeted at Anita Sarkeesian, a prominent cultural critic who critiques games from a feminist perspective.

One developer, Jennifer Hepler, author of “Women in Game Development: Breaking the Glass Level-Cap,” told The Times that she went so far as to install bulletproof glass on her windows after a lengthy online campaign against her. She was singled out for the inclusion of LGBT-friendly characters in a sword-and-sorcery game.

Gamergate advocates argued that gaming journalists were corrupt and were colluding to bring a politically correct makeover to the medium (read: take away our digital guns, treat women as more than sex objects and cast anyone other than a white male as the lead protagonist).

Yiannopoulos, banned from Twitter over allegations that he coordinated the sexist and racist harassment of “Ghostbusters” star Leslie Jones, galvanized his believers by claiming that gaming had come under attack by an “army of sociopathic feminist programmers and campaigners.”

Those who bought into his words targeted their ire at female critics who sought to intellectualize the medium. Ultimately, they were only bringing to light gaming’s more regrettable traits: that it has long pandered to a male-focused, gun-obsessed community where women were damsels more often than heroes.

Even Nintendo’s mobile title “Super Mario Run,” the biggest game of this winter, perpetuates the myth that women are to be rescued rather than kick butt.

The biggest, most visible games are still largely created by men for boys. Gamergate ultimately was driven by nostalgia and fear of change. “Keep politics out of games” was Gamergate proponents’ rallying cry, but they may as well have been saying, “Make games great again.”

There’s evidence that major developers are listening to their broader audience rather than being bullied by Gamergate, as recent titles such as “Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End,” “Watch Dogs 2” and Dishonored 2” have touched on mature themes with a wide variety of characters.

Yet Gamergate brings to the fore some uncomfortable facts. The International Game Developers Association recently pegged the game industry at about 80 percent male, and while some surveys note that the game-playing community is close to a 50-50 male-female split, consoles and gaming computers are still predominantly used by the male gamer.

Geoffrey Zatkin, co-founder of gaming consultancy Electronic Entertainment Design and Research, noted at a gaming event last March that North American gamers in 2015 leaned male 55 percent to 45 percent. But on home video game consoles, that number jumps to 60 percent male. On PCs, it’s 64 percent.

For much of the last decade, the biggest game franchises — “Call of Duty” and “Grand Theft Auto” among them — were driven by guns and disparaging views of women and minorities. And unlike the Republican Party, the game industry has done this without lobbying money.

It may as well have been content unwittingly aimed directly at the so-called alt-right community, the loosely defined movement made up of social-media-savvy white nationalists that has also attracted neo-Nazis, anti-Semites and misogynists.

There is a connection to Gamergate.

“The people who promoted Gamergate said they were concerned about journalism ethics,” read a post on PressThink, a site maintained by New York University professor Jay Rosen. “As a professor of journalism with a social media bent, I felt obligated to examine their claims. When I did I discovered nasty troll behavior with a hard edge of misogyny.”

Of course, Gamergaters were simply amplifying the content directed toward them — the rape jokes of “Grand Theft Auto,” the gun-fetishism of nearly every other game and a fantasy vision of the world ruled almost exclusively by white men.

So Hollywood isn’t out of touch with the real — make that conservative — America, after all. The entertainment powerhouses behind the world’s biggest games have directly targeted it. And now the rest of the country — the majority of voters behind the popular vote, if you will — can’t press the jump button to avoid it.

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