Many years ago now, the Internet brought a terrible tabletop RPG to my attention. It was a complete mess of a fantasy game. I can’t in good conscience call it a fantasy heartbreaker because there was absolutely nothing to like about the game. Character creation was a multiple hour slog that resulted in characters that made no sense and had no business engaging in any of the activities of a fantasy adventure. It defended its many-layered mysogyny as realism, and then had a bunch of magic items based on racist stereotypes. Its mechanics were simply terrible, mistaking extreme randomness and multi-step mathematical calculation for system complexity. The attribute its creators crowed about the most – the inclusion of mechanics for adult situations – was ground-breaking only in its ability to rob the sex act of everything that makes it exciting, fun, or meaningful. The whole game was at once offensive and pathetic on every level.
We talked about it on a forum I frequented at the time. The response to every aspect of the game was overwhelmingly negative, though, so “talked about” was probably less accurate a descriptor than “mocked relentlessly as the worst game we had ever seen.” We were in our early and mid-20s, with all the stupidity about human relationships that implies, so a few of us wrote sarcastic emails to the creators (which I regret in large part because I knew, even then, that it was a waste of my time and energy). Mostly we laughed, confident that this game had no cultural value and would soon sink into obscurity, which it has except as a cautionary tale. Those of us who remember that game from those days still shake our heads in wonder at how terrible it was.
I haven’t forgotten what it means to hate a creative work. I’ve long held that no one can hate a book like an English major. I try not to let myself dwell too long on stuff I despise, but that doesn’t mean I can’t work up a towering rage over a book or movie or TV show that offends my sensibilities. People are welcome to disagree with me, and maybe they’ll even make a good point or two, but if dialogue isn’t going anywhere the easiest thing to do is just drop the subject.
By the same token, I have no trouble getting excited about a creative work. This blog is a testament to that enthusiasm for awesome things. And if someone disagrees with me and calls me a Star Wars prequel apologist or worse, that’s their prerogative. They might level some fair criticisms, and they might recognize some of the good elements I see in it, but if the gulf of individual tastes is too wide to bridge I’m not going to convince someone to love something they hate. It is almost never worth the attempt.
Art (even if we must hold our noses as we call it that) is subjective as hell, and it is always fair game for criticism. Shakespeare had his critics, and Dickens had his critics, and Tolkien had his critics, and even I have my critics (obscure as I am). Michael Bay has an awful lot of critics, too. Anyone who is putting their stuff out there is opening it up to criticism. It comes with the territory of producing media for public consumption.
In turn, criticism is itself fair game for criticism. It doesn’t take much higher education to make a student aware of the huge disagreements in academia. If you make a claim you’d better be prepared to back it up with textual and contextual evidence, lest other critics in your field eat you alive. That’s why they call it “defending a thesis.”
By the same token, criticism of criticism is subject to the same rules of logic as the criticism of the art itself. Ad hominem attacks, slippery slope fallacies, and all the other lazy attempts to dismiss the argument without equally rigorous logic are beneath contempt. All this applies to non-academic settings as well, by the way – politics, workplaces, charitable or religious organizations, and (believe it or not) Internet arguments. If you can’t formulate a rational argument in favor or against an idea you cannot expect reasonable people to take your argument (and, by extension, you) seriously.
The last several weeks have seen ad hominem attacks, threats of violence, and really despicable (if not downright illegal) tactics deployed against women gamers and any men with the audacity to defend them by an organized band of dudebro gamers who want…what exactly? Judging by their misogynistic ramblings, they want anyone who doesn’t agree with them to die, to become victims of violence, to live in fear of violence, and (above all else) to be silent.
They seem to think that astroturf shenanigans like #GamerGate will sway public opinion about dudebro gamers like them. They have been tremendously successful. I haven’t played video games regularly since the days of Starcraft and Diablo II. The last console I owned was a Super Nintendo. But I now have a much worse opinion of straight, white, male “gamers” than I’ve ever had. Someone who would engage in the Twitter equivalent of black-face using #NotYourShield doesn’t strike me as someone worth engaging in constructive debate – or worthy of consideration in any artist’s creative decisions, and I must say I hope the people who make the games they play feel the same way.
We were all young and stupid once (while thinking ourselves oh-so-clever), but despite our strong and emotional reaction to a game for which we were clearly not the target audience, my fellow forumites didn’t make rape/castration/death threats against the creators in a public forum. We didn’t stalk the creators and send them pictures of their houses or the places where their young relatives play (children, siblings, cousins, whatever). We certainly didn’t organize DDOS attacks or online black-face campaigns involving thousands of sock puppets. If anyone in our community had suggested stooping to that low we would not have egged them on or encouraged them to still greater heights of ad hominem terrorism.
Because all the shit the #GamerGate crowd are engaged in is utterly contemptible – a sad reminder that misogyny and homophobia and racism are alive. If we want a world in which the first response to a woman’s reasonable critique of some of a medium’s problematic tropes (while going out of her way to remind viewers that she loves the medium, because otherwise why would she bother?) is not a massive outpouring of death/rape threats that target the critic instead of the critique, we need to kick those fuckers to the curb.
You want your games to be fun according to your (head-shakingly narrow) definition of fun? Oh boo hoo! Some of us would like for our friends and colleagues to stop receiving threats of violence against their children for saying it would be kind of nice to have more examples of empowered women and people of color in their media of choice. As long as you keep harassing non-white, non-male dudes (or sniggering while other dudes do so), you’re not exactly bringing tears to my eyes.
This is not a fight the faux geek dudebros behind #GamerGate and #NotYourShield can win. They’re shouting at an advancing glacier, but they can’t slow it down. The demographic and societal shifts are already underway. And every time they resort to pathetic, childish tactics like these that attract the attention of people who are otherwise completely uninterested in video games they only make frustrating their backward notions more appealing. To wit:
When Anita Sarkeesian ran her Kickstarter some years ago I had never even heard of her. Again, I don’t play video games very much at all. I heard about the death and rape threats, though. Then I took a small stroll around the Internet and saw them. My first reaction wasn’t “wow, she must be a controversial bitch whose opinions are suspect.” It was more along the lines of “Jesus fucking Christ, what is wrong with these people?!? Is this what geeks have come to – misogynistic technothugs? Take my money, dammit! Anything that stops these douches from getting what they want is clearly good for society. Holy shit!” It is so horrifying to see dudebro geek antics that I want to ally myself with anyone who opposes (or is opposed by) something with so few redeeming qualities.
They would have done a lot more for the cause of dudebro geeks if they had kept their stupid mouths shut. They didn’t do that. Now is the time when we laugh these technothugs into irrelevance and obscurity. This time I won’t even send any of them a sarcastic email. They’re not worth it. Let’s change this shit from the top.