J. Robert Lennon

A few years ago, a colleague in the English department told me she was vexed by her son’s addiction to, and incessant chatter about, a video game. The implication was that his time would be better spent reading. I asked what the game was.

Braid,’ she said.

‘Dude,’ I said. ‘You’ve got to play Braid. It’s awesome!’

It wasn’t long ago that many of us in academia regarded video games as little more than the violent and misogynist recreational pursuits of our least attentive students, things that our children should be protected from. But games have matured as an art form in the past decade, and are now among the most vital and quickly evolving cultural phenomena.

I’d given them up as a teenager, after an adolescence of Atari 2600 and Ms Pac-Man; Tom Bissell’s book Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter (2010) put me back onto them. Braid (2008), which Bissell paid particular attention to, is a painterly, dreamlike platform game (a type of two-dimensional game involving jumping and climbing), that evoked its predecessors while introducing unusual game mechanics (the manipulation of time) and themes that turned the traditional princess-rescue mission of the form’s more ‘innocent’ era on its head. Among other things, Braid is a surprising meditation on gender politics, the morality of technological innovation and war.

It was only one of many works that attempted, in ways large and small, to reinvent games as a new and expressive narrative form. Even the dreaded first-person shooters that have been frightening parents for twenty years have been fertile ground for artistic innovation. Games had long been a serious business (earning tens of billions of dollars annually), but now they were coming of age as art.

Every art form needs its critics, and video games has some good ones at sites such as Kotaku, Polygon and Rock Paper Shotgun. Some of them write from a feminist perspective. Games have needed this for a long time. The representation of women in many games is astonishingly sexist and depraved. Anita Sarkeesian’s video essays are a handy primer on the sexual objectification of women in games. Her patient remedial explanation, in ‘Women As Background Decoration (Part 1)’, of the concept of sexual objectification shows you how far behind gaming culture is in achieving political self-awareness.

Which brings us to the unfortunately named ‘Gamergate’, a ‘scandal’ that has emerged in recent months, ostensibly as a response to perceived ethical lapses among female game critics and developers, but which is really a pressure release for a male-dominated culture afraid of inevitable change. Its proponents have delivered rape and death threats to Sarkeesian and the game developers Zoe Quinn and Brianna Wu, as well as harassing the writer Leigh Alexander, whose essay ‘“Gamers” Are Over’ on and ‘List of Ethical Concerns in Video Games (Partial)’ on her own blog have been shining exceptions to the past month of bloviation, verbal abuse, and oblivious sexism with which a vocal minority of ‘gamers’ has poisoned the internet.

But what is ‘Gamergate’? It’s hard to give a simple answer, primarily because of the campaign’s utter speciousness, but the best explanation so far has come from Kyle Wagner, in a piece for Deadspin, called ‘The Future of the Culture Wars is Here, and it’s Gamergate’. Basically, Wagner argues, Gamergate is the Tea Party: a reactionary and wilfully misinformed movement designed to discredit agents of social change. Protected by a mainstream press obsessed with presenting ‘both sides’ of a story, even when one side consists primarily of hate speech, the Gamergate ‘movement’ uses its highly selective and mostly imaginary research into journalistic ethics as cover for its real aims: to banish women and their demands from a predominantly white, male and heterosexual gaming culture.

I’ve watched with interest as literary Twitter has learned of these strange events; writers who are not otherwise aware of gaming culture react with astonishment and bewilderment. The poet Elisa Gabbert, a few minutes after asking her followers for an explanation of Gamergate and being told there isn’t any ‘actual misogyny’ in games, asked: ‘If death and rape threats aren’t “actual misogyny” what the hell is?’

The writer and editor Tom MacAllister, by way of darkly comic relief, invented the hashtag #SandwichGate: ‘a grassroots movement focused on exposing unethical sandwich practices & also threatening to murder women who make sandwiches’.

Gamergate’s rhetoric may seem deranged, and worthy of intense mockery. It’s hard not to laugh when gaters accuse Sarkeesian of hypnotic mind control or try to ruin Christmas. But it isn’t funny, not really, and writers and critics should be paying close attention. If games are the new frontier in the culture wars, we ought to be willing to support the people who are making games into a significant art form.

The maturation of video games isn’t a threat to fiction writers and poets. Any experimentation in narrative form is one we can all benefit from. Many of my writing students have been positively influenced by games, or have gone on to write for and about them; mentioning games in the classroom excites interest in narrative structure and broadens and deepens discussion. (The Stanley Parable, an indie game recommended to a me by a graduate student, has been a particuarly useful fiction teaching tool.)

On 14 October, soon after Wagner’s piece was published, Sarkeesian was forced to cancel a talk at Utah State University. The university had received a highly specific mass shooting threat from an unidentified emailer – ‘Feminists have ruined my life and I will have my revenge’ – but refused to ban guns from the auditorium where Sarkeesian was scheduled to speak because they weren’t willing to contravene Utah’s open-carry policy. Wagner couldn’t have asked for a more depressing validation of his thesis that the gaming culture war is everyone’s culture war, and gaming’s trolls are everyone’s.

 Thanks to Adi Robertson for her help.