In 440 BC, a friend of the Greek philosopher Socrates (who was not yet famous) asked the Oracle of Delphi if there was anyone wiser than Socrates. The Oracle’s reply was a simple “no.” Obviously, the friend meant it to please the young philosopher, but Socrates was rather skeptical when he heard about it. He sought evidence that the Oracle was full of crap by speaking to the people of Greece… and eventually had to admit it seemed she was correct. Ultimately, it came down to one key difference; as Socrates put it, “I know that I know nothing.” So many people were unaware of or did not respect their own ignorance, and for all his knowledge the greatest wisdom Socrates had was knowing his own limits.
For years now, the hardcore members of the video game community have identified themselves as “gamers.” It’s a label of pride and confidence, born from a time of bullying and shame. Video games were not always popular, cool, or even accepted. Games have been treated as a complete waste of time, a corrupting influence on our youth, a sign of immaturity in adults, and much more. When gaming was considered a mark of shame, it was necessary for the survival of the community to own the label and turn it into a sign of pride. “We’re gamers. We’re united. We refuse to let the media use our passion for their own ends- you don’t get to lie about what’s in a game to get views, you don’t get to pretend we turn babies into serial killers. We won’t let you.”
Gaming is accepted today because we came together and set aside differences to squash the misinformation and lies. Video games are made by developers, but gaming was made by gamers. This community we’ve built has some aggressive and negative streaks, but our tenacity means we’re now taken seriously by society. There’s a key there, though- the tense. Was made. Have built, not “are building.” The job isn’t totally done, but society no longer has a problem with our hobby. Does your mom play Bejeweled? Do you have an aunt or uncle who played Words with Friends? We have run out of enemies.
What happens when you’ve built a community on fighting back, on battling opposition… and suddenly you stand unopposed? Simple: you invent your own enemies. In the absence of actual foes, the gaming community has turned on itself in a witch hunt called GamerGate. We’re all aware of the facts of this movement by now, so let’s dodge the recitation of data and skip straight to the analysis. The way GamerGate was driven by misogyny, and reacts viciously toward any games that tried to be something more than mere entertainment, shows conservative regression. These gamers are falling back to the days when that term was invented- a boys’ club of shooting, punching, and high scores. They’re fearful of the outside, be it women or games that are interested in more than fun.
It doesn’t do any good to tell them we’re not enemies- to point out that games handling more serious subjects, or the fact that the gaming community is growing to encompass more people, outlooks, and lifestyles, poses no threat. It’s bigotry, and bigotry is born of ignorance, but lives on fear. They’re afraid that games are going to leave them behind, and their fear doesn’t answer to logic. On the one hand, they’re silly for being afraid- just because Catherine Breillat makes her indie art films to intellectually stimulate his audience hasn’t made the summer blockbuster unviable. On the other, though, they’re totally right- maybe the industry won’t leave what they love behind, but if they react to change with raging, screaming hissy fits, we will abandon their immature and disgusting way of handling their problems. Gaming doesn’t need to “grow up”; it’s already doing so, at quite a pleasing rate. Gamers need to grow up.
How does this wrap around to Socrates? Think about it this way- why do they fear these new expressions in gaming to begin with? Why does the idea of women being treated with respect seem so alien to them? Why, in fact, does playing anything other than a white male with a heteronormative identity terrify them to the core? You could say it’s ignorance- but we’re all cursed with ignorance of some form or another. No, the truth is, it’s willful ignorance- it’s having no respect for what they do not know. Not only do these people not know what makes these new perspectives valuable, they don’t want to know. They don’t accept that there could be lessons for them to learn; instead, they wrap themselves in a blanket of ignorance, and declare everyone else to be wrong. It’s the logic of a child.
When Skullgirls developer Lab Zero asked for funding to create DLC characters, gamers were not quiet in their contempt. $150k for one character was clearly overpriced madness. After all, we’re gamers– we live and breathe games. We know tons about development and its costs. Only… we don’t. Giant Bomb’s Patrick Klepek wrote a great article (http://www.giantbomb.com/articles/the-little-fighting-game-that-could/1100-4587/) breaking down the costs associated with the work, and every other developer he contacted agreed that $150k wasn’t overpriced, it was a bargain. Similarly, a GamerGate advocate on Twitter recently challenged Tim Schafer to prove that he wasn’t rolling in stacks of cash from the Broken Age Kickstarter… and when Schafer immediately replied with a comprehensive breakdown of the game’s budget that accounted for every penny and then some, the critic suddenly went quiet.
The GamerGate movement is made up of a bunch of gamers who are convinced that they know what this industry needs better than the people who actually work in it do. They know journalism better than journalism graduates with more than a decade of experience writing games news and criticism. They know game development better than the man whose talents are so legendary that he now has his own studio, and is even publishing other studios’ games. They know art better than artists, and they know feminism better than women (and take it from them: those women are getting hysterical over nothing).
It’s easy to stand on the sidelines and feel superior to them- and that’s not unfair. We’re not sending rape or death threats, we’re not trying to slut-shame respectable and talented writers, and we’re not breaking the law. The behavior of those driving GamerGate has been disgusting and despicable, and it’s a wonderful thing that it seems to have finally run out of steam and dissolved into nothing. Yeah, we’re better than those guys. I’m okay with saying that.
But we’re not perfect ourselves. There is something about the term “gamer” that makes our community toxic. People who enjoy a good movie aren’t automatically “filmers” (and while the term “Cineaste” is indeed a thing, they are a far smaller percentage of the film watching audience) and though the term “reader” exists, it’s not exclusive- everyone who reads is a reader. There’s no excluding people because “the books you read aren’t hardcore enough,” and you’d never tell anyone (in seriousness or in jest) to “turn in their reader card.” It also begets arrogance- we’re gamers, so of course we know all about games. Not a fan of Flappy Bird? That’s because it sucks! I know that for a fact, because I dislike it and I’m a gamer. That means my opinion has more value on the matter. It inherently makes us dismissive of parts of this industry that our hardcore crowd doesn’t worship.
I’m not trying to lay all of the blame at our feet. A lot of what the term “gamer” has become is due to our own defenses against media persecution mixed with nostalgia, but it was also shaped by outside influences. We scoff at commercial attempts to appeal to the “gamer” market, but those are just the heavy-handed ones- we don’t raise an eyebrow at the ones that work. For every bag of “GamerGrub” and every bar of Strategy Chocolate, there’s the product that we don’t realize actually is tied to our identity. For all of our ironic jokes, Mountain Dew and Doritos are both genuinely foods that market to, and are majorly consumed by, “gamers.” Energy drinks. Razor mice. Brands of headsets, t-shirts, posters, art books… there are corporate interests invested in the gamer label.
To that end, they want us to feel like a community. Communities are easier targets for marketing. And once you’ve put people into a group identity, and they know that your ads are for them… to an extent, they can shape that identity. “Gamers are passionate. Gamers are slackers. Gamers are overwhelmingly male.” Are these things that we decided about ourselves, or that Gamestop decided about us? Because I think we’re notice that the largest demographic in gaming, as proven by studies, is actually adult women.
Believe me, they aren’t deciding nice things for us- or, as we’ve noted, particularly accurate things either. They are deciding things that are profitable… exploitable. People who feel persecuted are exploitable. So are folks that want to feel like they’re part of an exclusive club. On its own, that’s a great reason to abandon the label- the degree to which it’s been co-opted by marketing and commercialism. That it’s causing our minds to work in ways that lead to arrogance, exclusion, and even self-destructive persecution simply seals the deal.
I hope we don’t lose the community. I hope we can retain our pride in what we do, and that games continue to help define us and help us understand our world and each other. But games can’t be our identity, because we’re so much bigger than them. I’m bigger than my shelf of PS2 games- I like to write, cook and walk empty streets in the rain. Let us hope we can be like film- though there are few people who use movies to define who they are, plenty of people enjoy a good film, or consider themselves “movie buffs.” Let’s have our enthusiasm, knowledge, and passion add to our sense of self, not dominate it. Gamer was a good label, but it’s time to leave it behind.