By Matt Peckham
October 16, 2014

This is how far we have to go: the Entertainment Software Association, a U.S. video game trade association and sometime D.C. lobbyist group, is now having to remind us that threatening to do violent harm to someone is the opposite of okay.

“Threats of violence and harassment are wrong,” an ESA spokesperson told the Washington Post Wednesday. “They have to stop. There is no place in the video game community—or our society—for personal attacks and threats.”

Read those words again, slowly, because they are a measure of the distance that remains between right here and now, and the point at which our species practices general civility in all its forms of communication, where human beings can depend on each other not to be cruel, condescending, vicious and in some instances even homicidally hostile over cultural disagreements. It should be as shocking as some of these threats that in 2014, someone has to utter the words “harassment is wrong.”

And yet at least three women who work in the games industry have had to temporarily leave their homes after being threatened with horrific acts of violence, simply because they said something someone else found disagreeable. Critic Anita Sarkeesian, known for her video series deconstructing female tropes in video games, just canceled her appearance at Utah State University after someone threatened “the deadliest shooting in American history” if she was allowed to speak. (The university deemed the presentation safe to proceed after consulting with local law enforcement, but can you blame anyone so threatened?)

The locus of all this animus in recent months is a so-called movement known as “Gamergate,” another neologistic slogan born of the infamous 1970s political scandal whose tendrils have circumnavigated space-time to motivate people to lazily append and then rally behind an egress descriptor glommed onto a vague reference label. Like the Tea Party, Gamergate may have been forged with something like an original central purpose: in its case, ostensibly reforming perceived corruption in “games journalism.” But as some of its supporters began violently threatening women who wrote about the topic, it quickly snowballed into something far messier and treacherous, a perplexing mass of conflicting idea-vectors, vitriol-filled social media assaults and online forum-filled cascades of general thuggery.

In a recent Salon article celebrating Richard Dawkins’ slight backpedaling on religion, the site references an interview with the evolutionary biologist, in which Dawkins says “There is a kind of pseudo-tribalism which uses religion as a label.” He’s talking about The Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), reacting to a question about what could motivate a group to acts of utter barbarism like the beheadings for which ISIS is now infamous.

“Pseudo-tribalism” summarizes nicely. Swap “religion” for “Gamergate,” specifically for those using the term to denigrate and terrorize women, and you have the analogue. That well-meaning proponents of Gamergate have utterly failed to wrangle the slogan back from these bomb-throwers means it’s time to abandon it, to find a better way to prosecute concerns about journalistic corruption, and to wade civilly into the intellectual debate about female tropes in games.

Whatever you think of Sarkeesian’s thoughts on games and those tropes—and it should go without saying that there is room for civil debate about any critic’s thoughts on anything—there’s no room in such a debate for harassment, libel, slander, rape threats, death threats, posting intimate photos of someone without consent, outing their geographic location to intimidate them and so forth. Harassment is not debate. Harassment ends debates. It’s antithetical to dialogue, and, assuming you’re not so aberrant or sociopathic that you can’t tell the difference, isn’t meaningful dialogue what you’re after?

This is how you change the debate, and it has to happen before dialogue starts, before you even get to the level of worrying about semantic contentiousness over whether the label “gamer” is forever or forever stultified. In logic debates, there’s a thing known as the ad hominem fallacy. Ad hominem is Latin for “to the person.” It means to attack someone personally–and irrelevantly–instead of debating the actual idea or claim or argument. The litmus test is this: after you’ve typed out your comment or message board post or social media screed, does it violate this fallacy? If so, that’s what the delete button’s for.

If you don’t care about respecting someone else’s right to disagree with you, if all you want is to cause harm for some twisted sense of catharsis, what can I say but that you’re doing something that’s the opposite of noble, the opposite of productive, the opposite of moving the ball down the field in whatever direction you think is important–and when you escalate harassment to the level of violence, it’s the very definition of psychopathic.

What I find most depressing about any of this isn’t the state of journalism (it’s hardly just “games journalism,” folks) or what men think about women and women about men. It’s that as human beings in 2014, we still think it’s okay to pick up a keyboard or tablet or phone, venture to someone else’s online space, pull out our weaponized words, and open fire.

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