Letter to a Young Male Gamer

Some ground rules to keep in mind in the wake of an ugly, sexist scandal.

Courtesy of Zoe Quinn
Depression Quest.

Courtesy of Zoe Quinn

There are a lot of jerks on the Internet. I know you aren’t one of them. I write to give you some credit, some advice, and some hope.

I write to you about the ongoing gaming scandal that’s inflamed the Internet concerning game designer Zoe Quinn and gaming journalism. To recap: The mess started when an angry ex-boyfriend of Quinn’s posted a dirty-laundry double load of drama-laden chats with her that, he claimed, made her out to be a manipulative liar and a shameless self-promoter. One of his most contentious (and unproven) accusations: that she slept with a gaming journalist at Kotaku who helped secure favorable coverage and publicity for her game Depression Quest. The allegation roiled a youthful (I won’t say immature, but many of your brethren are in their teens) gaming community that already had a volatile relationship with an increasingly commercialized and clickbait-driven gaming press.

Such massive flame wars and trolling resulted that Reddit gaming mods aren’t even allowing the Quinn scandal to be discussed right now, mass-deleting hundreds of posts. Twitter exploded (of course), there’s a 300-page thread on Escapist’s gaming forum, and the discussion board–slash–“asshole of the Internet” is bubbling over with rage and conspiracy theories. Perennially high-strung game designer Phil Fish defended Quinn; in response, his own site got hacked—exposing his personal data down to his Social Security number—and he left the industry again. After game critic John Bain, aka TotalBiscuit, asked everyone to calm down, he was branded a misogynist and shouted down. The entire situation is a dismal feedback loop of rage and abuse, where the harassment gets Quinn and her game more media coverage, and the harassers take that as evidence that they were right all along—something that’s already happened to Quinn several times over the past year.

But I’m assuming that you, young gamer, are one of the reasonable ones who feel they can’t be heard above this colossal noise. I imagine you’re frustrated that you’re getting lumped in with abusive trolls, teenage ragers, men’s rights activists, pickup artists, Elliot Rodger, and worse.

So let me start by giving some credit to gamers where credit is due. Supporting the Women Making Video Games for Charity project on crowdfunding site Indiegogo—that was a great idea. When I hear that 4chan gamers raised $13,000 for the project, I thought, “Fantastic!” Some people will say that male gamers are just doing it out of spite, that the only reason you’re donating to women in gaming is because the organizers of the campaign don’t like Zoe Quinn either (they allege she sabotaged their project). Let them think that. It’s a good cause, and doing the right thing for the wrong reason is still doing the right thing. If you’re morally generous, and if you actually end up pulling more women into gaming, this issue will lose its teeth. For the unexpected jaw drop of seeing 4chan donate major cash to a women-in-gaming fundraiser, I commend you.

But I do have a request for you: Stop publicly criticizing Quinn. Go after the men. Criticize the games themselves. But leave the women alone, even if you think they merit criticism.

I know it’s unfair for me to ask this of you, young gamer. A fair number of people—not you!—are doing a lot worse than criticizing. Those adolescents (or arrested adolescents) are trolling Quinn, harassing and threatening her, hacking her accounts, even calling her home and circulating nude pictures of her. But they’re not going to listen to reason (some eventually might, after they graduate from high school), and you might. I actually think, perhaps optimistically, there are a lot more of you than of them, and the world needs to hear more of your voices.

I realize that you don’t have a problem with women per se. Think of Kim Swift, the awesome game designer who was project lead for the legendary Portal, or think of Halo engine programmer Corrinne Yu. You realize, I know, that your life would be better with more women like them in gaming. Swift herself has written about how rough women have it in the industry, so keep in mind that targeting Quinn will drive away the next Kim Swift. That’s not a trade you want to make. Publicity and cronyism are ephemeral. Good games are forever.

You are pissed off, I realize. You are a young man who loves video games and hates their increasing corruption by money and hype, the gaming press tainted by what Forbes journalist Erik Kain calls “the lack of a uniform ethical code.” You see the gaming press as a shallow, superficial in crowd made up of those who have ascended to their positions not by merit but by connections, schmoozing, and social skills. There’s probably something to that. Nepotism rules the world, and you understandably feel completely invisible next to those journos. Kotaku is owned by Gawker Media, a company whose history reads like an episode of Gossip Girl. You look at Kotaku, which employs exactly one female reporter and one female editor, and then you see them promote Zoe Quinn’s game seemingly because she knows people at Kotaku and may have even slept with them, and you feel indignant because they’re tokenizing women—and not just any women, but their in-crowd friends. And when you call them out on their cliquishness, they get sanctimonious about it? Kotaku getting sanctimonious, when they call game developers “clueless” and shove exploitative ecchi anime in your face (or the one with underage toothbrush incest and sexual harassment of 12-year-olds)? That’s pretty rich, I’ll give you that.

I know you want, more than anything, a world free of hypocrisy and cronyism and cool kids. This is not an impossible goal. But you have to be strategic, as your fellow gamers say on 4chan and Escapist:

Trying to shame Zoe more is derailing us from useful endeavours like brainstorming more ideas for inclusive video games … which are far more productive than bitching about one woman’s sex life.

We need to stop focussing on her and focus on the journalists. … We need to not make this about Zoe.

Trying to find new and inventive ways to hate Zoe Quinn, however, does nothing to build or improve your case that journalistic integrity is at the heart of this issue.

I read many comments like this, and they are absolutely right: Don’t make Quinn the target. Indie game journalist Sarah Auseil agrees with you. “Quinn is not, and should never have been the centre of this storm,” Auseil writes. Go at the journalists, not at Quinn. Kotaku editor Stephen Totilo took the matter seriously enough to conduct an investigation as to whether Quinn received biased coverage and has changed policy to bar reporters from donating to game developers, so people are listening, and your concerns are legitimate.

Women in gaming have it way rougher than men, and to be blunt, it is simply not the end of the world if Quinn gets a free pass for whatever sins she may have committed—if you can call what’s happening to her right now a free pass. As Auseil wrote:

I am a woman in this industry and I have dealt with the abuse, the harassment, the misogyny in every area. I could tell you all about my rape threats, dick pics, about being physically confronted by dudes, having people demand I prove I ‘even play games’, but that’s the norm for women. … You don’t have [to] like it, you don’t have to care, but you do have to accept that’s a fact we can all attest to.

It’s because of that ubiquitous abuse, young gamer, that the “adults” in the room (and I use that term loosely) have to stop the bloodshed in pretty blunt ways, which means taking away the toys from the kids. Unfortunately, gaming means that you, as a mature human being, get temporarily lumped in with the misbehaving kids. This is why the moderators kill every thread concerning Quinn on Reddit; it’s why mentioning Quinn on game-streaming site will get the channel shut down immediately. It’s depressing that you’re getting censored along with the assholes. But if it’s a victim contest, the women will always “win.” As gaming writer Jenn Frank says, “the TRUTH is, it turns out being a girl professionally, or on the Internet, etc., is VERY HARD.” Feminist video game critic Anita Sarkeesian, a popular target for harassment, is getting “very scary threats” against her family, and all she does is talk about video games. Even Tea Partiers and socialists manage not to do that to each other.

Now a harder suggestion: Police yourselves. When an impetuous member of Anonymous “revealed” the wrong person as Michael Brown’s shooter, many other members aggressively and publicly condemned the member. You’ve got to do that, too. When the more infantile and hateful members of the online gaming contingent harass a woman, you should remind them what the actual goal is, and tell them that they’re tripping themselves up. Remember that you’re talking to a child, in spirit if not in actual fact. If you police yourselves, Reddit and Steam moderators won’t have to. This is not an easy task, but it is possible. Self-organizing communities are one of the miracles of human civilization.

To be honest, Quinn’s Depression Quest left me fairly unimpressed, at least compared with lesser-publicized games like Emily Short’s Blood and Laurels, Sophie Houlden’s Rose and Time, or Georgina Sinclair, Anita Sinclair, and Michael Bywater’s Jinxter. (Please write about them, Kotaku!) But next to atrocities like Dungeon Keeper or Rambo or SimCity, I just can’t get too worked up over it. But I see what it represents to you: the indie game scene being infected by the same publicity-crazed and nepotistic mentality that pollutes every facet of our capitalism-driven lives. But you know how you like to talk about the Streisand effect—how trying to get rid of something on the Internet only draws attention to it? Take your own advice, and ignore Quinn. Better to light a candle than curse Depression Quest.