— Reporting by Anthony Broderick, senior
When online harassment of female game developers heated up last summer, the debate took hold as “#GamerGate” on Twitter and other social media, where it still rages amid death threats, accusations and other charges. On one side are those who advocate for video game freedom of expression. On the other are those who say the culture is toxic for women game designers and players.
#GamerGate is a loosely organized movement that escalated in August when an ex-boyfriend charged a game developer with using her relationship with an industry journalist to gain positive reviews of her new game. But what started as a journalism ethics discussion has morphed into a conflict that addresses topics from sexism to diversity to radical changes in the industry.
“It used to be that the only hot-button issues in games were questions about appropriate content for minors, such as sex and violence,” said Ted Castronova, associate professor in the Media School’s game design program. “Now that games have gone mainstream, and have the same cultural impact as TV and movies, naturally they stir up more controversy.
“Debates about media bias are as old as writing” he added. “Suddenly, everyone has noticed that games and their messages are everywhere, and some of the messages have sparked a broader outrage.”
Those messages are under the microscope in the school’s game design program, where professors and researchers say they already are at work on improving the game design culture.
“While calling out hyper-sexualization and misogyny in games is important, the truly unconscionable threats and harassment of some people speaking out about this have overshadowed the deeper questions of how games present women and inclusion within the games industry,” said Mike Sellers, a professor of practice who was a designer and developer in the industry for 20 years before joining the faculty last summer.
In Sellers’ classes, such as T260 The Videogame Industry, students discuss questions of creative freedom as well as workplace diversity, but the prevalence of threats against those who offer critical opinions on these matters has made such harassment itself the issue.
For example, Zoe Quinn, the game developer with the journalist boyfriend, suffered death threats and “doxxing,” or seeing her personal information made public. Death threats against feminist writer Anita Sarkeesian, who addressed issues of #GamerGate and the derogatory depiction of women in video games, led to her cancelling speaking events.
Sellers and others in the game design program say change begins in the classroom.
“Here at IU, we are creating a culture of inclusion and diversity in our games program,” Sellers said. “We want to make sure that women and other under-represented groups are encouraged to take part. #Gamergate has been useful in showing students what not to do and how not to react when disagreeing with others.”
Castronova teaches several introductory and game design courses, including T366 Multiplayer Game Design, where he said he tries to create an equal platform for all voices to be heard in discussion as well as in production of games. Such open dialog is critical to the program, he said.
“The idea is to make games that are interesting to all kinds of people,” he said, and welcoming all kinds of creative ideas is one way to achieve that.
Doctoral student Teresa Lynch is exploring online game behavior in her research, which looks at the social and psychological impact of video games, including hostility toward women in online video game environments and the way that sexism may manifest in the development of game content.
“For me as a games researcher and a gamer myself, #GamerGate has been a frustrating and saddening campaign to witness,” Lynch said. “Although many who have rallied under the banner of #GamerGate have claimed to want more ethical operations in games journalism, my own experiences and those that others have shared with me over the years lead to the obvious conclusion that this movement is just another way to stifle women’s voices in the industry, propagate cultures of misogyny and bully women out of playing games.”
She does appreciate that the movement has brought the conversation into the mainstream, and she said she hopes this leads to a focus on more research, better design, and stronger organizational support of victims of attacks and action against perpetrators.
“Professionally, I am hoping to contribute to the fight against mistreatment of women in virtual spaces primarily by doing research to better understand the phenomena related to these encounters,” Lynch said. She wants to explore not just the effects these kinds of defamatory attacks have on people, but why they happen in the first place, she said.
One angle in her current research looks at portrayals of female characters in games and another assesses psychological mechanisms that may contribute to hostility toward women.
“We need to change the rhetoric about video games being ‘for guys’ and start understanding the broader implications of people using video games to develop comfort with technology, foster critical and creative thinking skills, and enjoy fun, meaningful experiences,” Lynch said. “Those should be things that everyone can take part in if they want.”
Change starts with future game designers, Castronova said. Students should be able to take their game design ideas into a classroom atmosphere where everyone exchanges ideas, listens to attitudes and opinions, and incorporates those into the design and stories.
“I want to avoid explicit censorship and rather create a culture where people respect differences,” Castronova said. “We will get the right mix of men and women together where no one will want to make anyone else uncomfortable.”
Learn more about #Gamergate:
- Zoe Quinn’s Depression Quest (The New Yorker)
- Feminist critics of video games facing death threats (The New York Times)
- Anita Sarkeesian and #Gamergate (Rolling Stone)