Left Vs Right
Gamergate has gone political, or, at least that’s where people seem to want to take it now. One of the latest attacks on the hashtag is to appeal to people’s tribalism, to make it into a left/right, liberal/conservative conflict. This isn’t helped by the fact that the media response to Gamergate from left/liberal media has been wildly inaccurate and (ironically) hateful and that the only honest reporting and commentary has come from, ostensibly right wing pundits, commentators and actors.
Unfortunately, this narrative and this re-frame of the argument is just another deflection, albeit one that plays well to existing prejudices and fractures in western political debate. It also plays well into, and reinforces previous attempts to make Gamergate about misogyny, sexism, racism, the supposed toxicity of gamer culture (actually troll culture, and I thought ‘gamer’ wasn’t an identity now anyway?)
The truth, however, is that this is absolutely not about left Vs right, but about authoritarian versus libertarian (please note the small ‘l’).
I, for example, am very, very much on the extreme left and an extreme liberal. An anarcho-socialist if you will. You can get a better idea of a political position (though it’s still imperfect) using the questionnaire and charts at politicalcompass.org
Here’s mine, left of Hugo Chavez and south of Gandhi.
Framing the argument in a left/right way is an attempt to create a false dilemma, that is, ‘You’re with us or you’re against us’. If you’re for Gamergate, do you realise you’re on the same side as Adam Baldwin and Milo Yiannopoulos who [insert said/did ghastly thing or political viewpoint here]?
This, of course, is a logical fallacy. If Stalin told you that a) grass was a rich burgundy colour and that b) 2+2=4, he’d still be right on the maths problem despite being wrong on the grass issue and despite being a genocidal despot. Agreeing with Stalin on the mathematics issue has nothing whatsoever to do with his enthusiasm for gulags and doesn’t imply that you agree with his policy of support for Lysenkoism.
Nonetheless, it’s sufficient for people to use as a smear and to try to undermine the gratitude many gamers feel towards people who have taken them seriously and addressed their issues honestly. Fortunately, this too doesn’t appear to be working.
The division here is not, really, left versus right (collectivism versus individualism) but rather authoritarianism versus (small ‘l’) libertarianism.
On the one hand the liberal point of view would (should) be summed up, amusingly enough, in part of the Wiccan Rede: “An it harm none, do what thou wilt.”
That is, maximum liberty for the greatest number of people and that so long as nobody is hurt by it, it shouldn’t matter to anyone else.
On the other hand the authoritarian point of view could be, admittedly uncharitably, summed up as ‘I know what’s best for you and for everyone else and I’m going to make sure that happens’.
Of course it’s more nuanced than that and there’s plenty of room for in depth debate and discussion about what constitutes harm and where the balance lies between collective security and freedom and individual security and freedom, but those are questions that can – mostly – be answered by hard facts. Contextually, however, we’re talking about a medium (interactive video), one that can be avoided using off buttons, purchasing decisions, broad, voluntary rating systems and so forth.
There is little discernible harm that video games can, or could, cause and they are entirely avoidable for those who do not like certain elements, tropes, representations and so forth. While many attempts have been made over the years by people with various gripes over various forms of media to associate them with antisocial behaviour, crime and ‘immorality’, none have actually been able to show any real link between consumption of fictive, recreational media and these social ills.
At the risk of flogging a dead horse, I’ll reiterate some of those instances with which I am historically or personally familiar.
- Fredric Wertham and The Seduction of the Innocent (Comics).
- PMRC hearing (Music).
- Backmasking/Heavy Metal & Suicide (Music).
- The Satanic Panic (Heavy Metal, Tabletop RPGs).
- ‘Murder Simulators’ (Video games).
More recently sex workers and porn workers have been smeared with associations to trafficking and child porn by those engaged in moral panic over pornography and prostitution. Again, no link has been found but moral panics have their own power and legislation such as the UK’s ‘extreme porn ban’ and on-by-default internet filtering have come about as a result.
Wertham’s actions and the moral panic he fed upon brought about the Comics Code which ‘sanitised’ comics and killed diversity in them. The PMRC fell short of many of its desired goals, but did put ‘explicit lyrics’ on many albums, which instantly – of course – made them more desirable. Heavy Metal won its days in court, thanks to Judas Priest. Tabletop gamers formed the (now defunct) CARPGA to battle the smears against them, but Pat Pulling (Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons) had many police on her side and RPG playing was used to profile suspects in some cases.
The most interesting case, to my mind, is Jack Thompson. Thompson hitched his wagon to, and became the face of, the moral panic about violence in computer games (though this had existed going way back, even to the computer game version of Death Race 2000).
Thompson and the claims about violence in video games having a real world effect were, rightly, laughed out of gaming circles including by the games media, production studios and the players themselves.
Despite the claims of the likes of Anita Sarkeesian being extremely similar, the response from media, academia and some players has been different. It’s useful to ask why that is, without immediately assuming it must be that because, this time, these arguments must have merit.
Cultural Marxism & False Consciousness
Some people in the debate over Gamergate like to toss around the words ‘Cultural Marxism’ at the anti-gamergate crowd and so I think it’s useful to educate people on what this term actually means and to also explain the concept of ‘False Consciousness’.
Cultural Marxism is the idea that, along with economic forms of oppression, there are cultural forms of oppression that intersect to preserve hierarchies and the status quo. Examples might include the traditional family, particular gender roles, racial stereotyping, national character and other forms of cultural identity.
Intersectionality ideas in modern ‘social justice’ movements are probably the modern incarnation of Cultural Marxism though conservatives do seem to like to throw the term around with incautious abandon, simply because it contains the magic word ‘Marx’, and is therefore able to panic people.
False Consciousness is another Marxist term used to describe how people can be mislead, lied to, manipulated and controlled into acting against their own interests. An example of a False Consciousness might be the belief in ‘The American Dream’, that is that one can ‘make it’ out of pluck, skill and sheer determination in American society, an idea that is largely statistically disproven in the current socioeconomic state of America, but which does keep the populace relatively pliant. Hope is powerful stuff, as is religion, for keeping people from getting fractious.
You’ll most likely come across False Consciousness these days in reference to feminism, through ‘internalised misogyny’, the idea that any women who disagrees with the current crop of third wave feminists is brainwashed.
Is there mileage in either of these ideas? Certainly there is. It’s hard to argue, however, that living in a pluralistic society as we are fortunate enough to do in the west, that people aren’t aware of alternatives and haven’t been exposed to them. It becomes very hard to argue that people aren’t operating of their own volition and making decisions – that some happen to think are bad – in good faith and with their own minds.
The attempts to manipulate the gaming media that have emerged of late, along with the DiGRA files, do reveal an agenda – and a secretive one – to manipulate and control the public message, to stifle debate and opposing points of view. This is diametrically opposite to the idea of Cultural Marxism, which would be to dismantle these authoritarian, singular, controlling stereotypes, and is an attempt to create a false consciousness, not to eliminate one.
Well Meaning Disasters
If there’s one thing I want people to take away from this essay on the politics of the situation, it is that people on both sides mean well. The ‘Social Justice Warrior’ side sees inequalities and problems in society and wants to address them. For reasons known only to themselves they have chosen to attack artistic expression – the output of society – rather than the actual causes of inequality and problems. Still, they think that by changing cultural cues and gatekeeping messages, they can influence society for the better.
Gamergate supporters, and those opposing ‘Social Justice Warriors’ more broadly are genuinely concerned with free expression, open and honest reporting, corruption in games media and all the other issues that have come up.
I have taken Gamergate’s side because it is the one that allows for the greatest plurality and diversity in art, and because it is the one that minimises authority. Also because I know my history, hinted at above, and I know how this kind of thing tends to go.
History is littered with well-meaning busybodies, interfering with the activities and entertainments of others because of their moralistic concerns.
Since we’re referring to Marx a lot, let us continue to use Marxist terms. What we have here is a petite-bourgeoisie, a social class of would-be middle/upper class with pretensions to their influence and impact on the world.
Netizens have, very much, become a petite-bourgeouisie class. Bloggers, writers, independent game developers, social commentators, SEO agents etc are their own commodities, branding themselves, selling themselves through patreon, crowdfunding etc yet not really owning their own means of production. I am as guilty of this as anyone, a necessary compromise of my own morality as a semi-freelance writer. In a modern context this is the new army of the self-employed or partially self-employed. Your etsy and ebayers as much as anything else.
Having garnered a little bit of power and influence, do the petite-bourgeoisie use to help others and break down systems of control and obstacles, or do they set up systems of control of their own? Our petite-bourgeoisie, despite having been the victims of roadblocks and difficulties in the past, now seek to set up their own gatekeeping and barriers in judgement on others, just as they were judged.
It’s breathtaking moral hypocrisy.
The well-meaning and interfering petite-bourgeoisie, puffed up on their own sense of entitlement and worth has done this many times before in the past as well. A sniff of legitimacy seems to turn some people into tyrants.
An excellent case-in-point would be the temperance movement. An interfering body of, largely, morally motivated and middle class people concerned by and interfering in a dangerous (or ‘dangerous’) pastime associated with the lower classes. Doing it for ‘their own good’.
Another would be the decline of Blaxsploitation cinema. At the time a large part of the cinematic audience was young, poor, urban, black and male. Films were made to cater to that audience and were wildly popular, often subverting the hierarchy of society at the time and creating popular people’s heroes. Yet this too was seen as dangerous, perpetuating insulting stereotypes and setting back the cause of equality – despite its riotous success with its target audience. Again, the interference largely came from those outside its cultural context, interfering for other people’s good.
An overly concerned, moralistic, would-be-respectable group has been responsible for some real cultural disasters and, in the case of temperance, one of the bloodiest gangland periods in American history.
No coincidence, then, that a genuinely populist art-form, with an audience primarily male and working class, should terrify the same moralising, respectable, petite bourgeoisie that it always has. The main critics of games, and the main body of ‘social justice warrior’ culture as a whole seems to be made up of white, middle class, products of academia. Particularly rather insular, echo-chamber topics such as gender or media studies, where the respect for genuine academic process and the usefulness of evidence seems to be low. Crippling white guilt, for things that distant ancestors did, seems to be a driving force behind this kind of self-loathing as it gets expressed externally and projected onto others, and it seems to excuse the ‘ends justifying the means’, whether it’s circumventing peer review, colluding to control a media message in gaming or hypocritically smearing and hurling abuse.
If there is a genuine culture war going on, of which games are simply one battleground, it is one of postmodernism versus rationalism, of subjectivity versus objectivity. Postmodernists, who seem to be dominant in media positions, seem to believe objective understanding is not only impossible, but shouldn’t even be attempted to be striven towards. With regard to Gamergate we saw this most egregiously in prideful boasts that no attempts were being made to even try to be objective.
As an atheist I’ve seen this in the backlash against New Atheism from non-skeptical divisions like the ironically named ‘Skepchick’. As a tabletop gamer I’ve seen this atmosphere poison games discussion there. As a writer of erotica I’ve seen it happen there, with companies and payment services being scared away from supporting ‘adult material’. Overall it seems to be a very broad cultural conflict in which – currently – feelings are being put well ahead of facts.
Games are a funny thing in that they contain both technical and artistic content. One can objectively talk about many features of a game, while other elements – such as style, story etc – are necessarily matters of taste. Objectivity with regard to those elements is difficult, but not impossible (if the review on these sections is balanced). What appears to be being objected to is not so much subjective matters of taste but gatekeeping based on a) whether a particular company or individual has created an ethical issue with the reviewer and b) political grandstanding in a game review.
People want to know if a game is fun, value for money, if the graphics are good, if the sound is good, whether it has replay value. They don’t really give much of a damn whether it conforms to 16th Century ideas about the Divine Right of Kings and nor do they give much of a damn whether it is suitably PC or conforms to third wave feminism.
There’s a time and a place for that, and it’s called editorials.
Part of the problem here is that game sites have explicit (and seemingly identical) political slants, yet do not seem to advertise or be known for that slant. When it comes to television news we know what we’re getting from Fox or MSNBC – a biased, tribalistic viewpoint. As a consumer we can choose to get a one-sided view or we can try and find a more balanced and objective view from another source or from multiple sources.
With games sites we don’t have that kind of up-front knowledge of what we’re in for and while, personally, I loathe the editorialising of ‘The News’ to the point where we now have ‘A News’, such might be useful on games sites so that we know what we are getting.
Gamergate is not a left/right conflict and those claiming to be on the left, while fighting gamergate – a genuinely grassroots, consumer rebellion – are not members of any left I recognise, given the left that I know is broadly anti-authoritarian and pro-egalitarian and given that these people want to set up a gatekeeping, moral ‘elite’ to politically vet material – to turn their petite-bourgeoisie into a nomenklatura (bureaucratic elite). That’s one side of the problem, the other side is the much larger corruption around the large companies, their schmoozing of reviewers and the bribery and threats involved against sites that don’t conform.
With these issues in mind, I propose the following.
- Review sites should be more explicit and open about their agendas, if they insist on having them.
- Political and social judgement should be limited to editorials, or at the very least boxed-out addenda to reviews.
- Gamergate should shift its focus, slowly, to the AAA corruption. That fight should – hopefully – unite media and gamers together in a drive for reviews that are honest.
- We need to investigate solutions that will pay games journalists and sites sufficiently that they are less vulnerable to and have less need of corruption.
- A Patreon model that actually untethers from the individual relationship, a voluntary ‘microsubscription’ might be one option.