Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Why I Am Embarrassed to Admit I Love Video Games: Part 1

As the medium of video games gets older and becomes more popular, “gaming” will be less and less of a thing. The concept of being “a gamer,” or the existence of “gaming culture” are concepts that only exist because most kinds of video games are still on the margins of society's collective consciousness. Those who regularly purchase games are a niche market. Being a fan of video games confers an identity to those who do it because of its relative rarity, like being a motorcycle rider, and unlike common activities, such as watching TV. Any kind of group that people can be categorized into is prone to having stereotypes and prejudices applied to its members by outsiders, and gamers are certainly no exception.

The prejudices against gamers are many, but the one I am concerned with is the generalization that we are ourselves very prejudiced people. Gamers - a group dominated by straight, white men - have a reputation for being overtly sexist, racist, homophobic and otherwise socially regressive. This is not why I am ashamed; I'm not concerned that people will think I am any of these things. If they know me well at all, they won't. A person who doesn’t know me might prejudicially assume these things if they somehow learn I am a gamer before they learn anything else about me, but that won't happen often except with other gamers, so I am not especially concerned.

To the extent that any prejudice is ever justified, this one is. The gaming community has huge problems with these issues. The stereotype of the bigoted gamer is widespread. It is well known that most spaces dedicated to communicating about games - or worse, within games - are rife with disgusting amounts of hateful bile. Admitting to liking games is tantamount to saying I am willing to tolerate this kind of shit for the sake of accessing entertainment, which calls my values into question. That is why I am embarrassed. It is very difficult to maintain the position that I value social justice, tolerance and acceptance when I appear to be ignoring blatant violations of these values among the people with whom I discuss and play games. Many non-gamers are people who might have become new gamers if not for the way that existing gamers behave. They were not wrong to conclude it isn't worth it. Half the time I think they made the right call and I should have taken up basketball or bird watching or something.

Of course I despise bigots, but I realize their occasional appearance is pretty much a given in any human endeavor. The places where they are known to congregate are suspect, however. What flaws do gaming spaces have that allows such vile behavior to flourish? I am aware that there is a silent majority of gamers who are not overtly bigoted, but who meekly tolerate the presence of bigots because they think they have no choice. Worse, there are some who, in their zeal to defend their beloved hobby from criticism, unwittingly support the bigots with minimization tactics: Don't feed the trolls” or “stop white-knighting.”  These enablers frustrate me to no end, but the ones who say nothing are incredibly aggravating as well; their silence lends tacit approval to the bigots' behavior. Many of the bigots are cowardly bullies, using the anonymity of online environments as cover to spew invective and slurs the use of which would ruin their extra-gaming social lives if, indeed, they have one. This same anonymity protects everyone, though, so why are the silent remaining so? The forces of anti-bigotry should be equally emboldened by the anonymity enjoyed by bigots, but by and large, they aren't speaking up. When I call out a chauvinist or homophobe in gamer-space, I often find myself the only voice of dissent, and my protests stir up even more bigots, as though by being decent I sow dragon's teeth.

The presence of bigots in our ranks is intolerable, and I grow increasingly disgusted with a lack of allies and the inertia that seems to be holding everyone back from cleaning house. A huge amount of what goes on in gaming circles is beyond reprehensible, and if you are a gamer who is not outraged about it, you are either not paying attention or part of the problem.

I have grown more acutely aware of these issues in the past 2 years because of my interest in the growing phenomenon of e-sports. Professional level competitive gaming has really taken off in the West with the release of Starcraft 2. With many video games you can avoid or minimize contact with other gamers, but competitions necessitate gatherings, interactions and discussion. As tournaments draw larger crowds, offer bigger prize pools and attract more sponsors, mainstream media is starting to pay attention. As desperately as team owners and tournament organizers try to attract outside attention to our events, the attention might not be to our benefit. We are not ready for outsiders to look around our spaces yet. I cringe whenever I think of Reuters or CNN at a video game tournament full of game fans. If they are any good at their job they are going to notice something right off the bat: almost all of the attendees are white men. If they do some research to find out why that is, if they report on what they find with the same disgust that I feel, it will severely hamper the growth of e-sports, and scare more people away from gaming. Nobody wants to hear that their baby is ugly, but this scene is riddled with terrible people that actively try to make others feel unwelcome. Alienating people is the opposite of what sponsors want, and without sponsors, there are no tournaments.

Spawn more chairs

In the following installemnts, I am going to examine 3 incidents involving overt bigotry that have happened in e-sports in the last 3 months. Yes, sadly, we have had one a month this year. I will examine how they were handled by the organizations involved and the e-sports fan base, highlighting how we get this stuff wrong, and how we occasionally get it right.
The first incident was “Aris" Bakhtanians' public, vicious sexual harassment of his teammate Miranda “Super_Yan” Pakozdi, egged on by viewers, during a week long live-streamed publicity event in February for Capcom's new release, Street Fighter x Tekken

The second is the firing of e-sports commentator Jake "Orb" Sklarew in March by the prominent American multi-game e-sports team Evil Geniuses over his repeated use of racial slurs on his stream.

Finally, I will examine the ongoing community reaction to Sasha "Scarlett" Hostyn, an 18 year old amateur Starcraft 2 player from Canada who won an online tournament for a chance to play in the 4th IGN Pro League Championship open bracket in Las Vegas where she won an impressive series of upsets against seasoned professional players. Her performance merited an interview with prolific e-sports reporter “Hot_Bid,” and hearing her voice in the interview, the ghouls that inhabit the lower half of Youtube and the Starcraft sub-Reddit clocked her as trans, and began their customary public shaming campaign. Each of these incidents highlights unique problems the gaming community faces and some possible solutions.

None of them make me feel particularly proud of being a gamer, though.


The day after I posted this article the fine folks at “Extra Credits” uploaded a video addressing harassment in online communities as a reaction, in part, to the first of the three incidents I mentioned. Their video is an excellent, thoughtful breakdown of the problem and well worth checking out. They have a special talent for making you think about video games in a new light, and their piece has influenced and expanded what I intended to say on the matter. I am still organizing my thoughts on the potential solutions to the problem and trying to filter something useful out of the rage I built up while researching the first case-study I selected.

I also freely admit that I am drawing attention to the fact that their video came out after I wrote the first part of this article as a sort of geek-hipster, anti-bandwagon, “I was against harassment before it was cool” conceit. That there is a hint of a rising groundswell forming gives me hope that this is something we can fix, but an enormous amount of work still needs to be done, and a lot of monstrously apathetic people need to be brought on board. Seriously, though, go watch it if you haven't already; it made me feel a lot better about our chances.

Something they said in their video really brought home why this is so important:

This stuff represents the worst in our community. It is antithetical to everything games are about. Games grew up as a medium about joy, and yet these people have made it an outlet for misdirected hate. I've heard people say that this is harmless. It's not. Go back and, if you can stomach it, watch the 'Cross Assault' video again. Watch that girl's love of the game be crushed out of her. Watch something that was good in her life be turned into something hurtful.


  1. I'm not a gamer, Izzy--because I would drop into that world and never re-emerge, not because it isn't my deal--so I was unaware of this problem. Despite my personal investment in gaming, I found this piece a very interesting read. I look forward to your next installments.


  2. I've never seen the Cross Assault video until now. It reminds me of my own first encounters with social gaming as a female in the community. The thing is, not only do we have to deal with misogyny, but to have any respect, we have to be good at the games we play.

    1. The evidence I've seen is that being good at the games has virtually no effect. If you are bad, it's because you are a woman and everyone knows women suck at games. If you are good, you are likely to be characterized as unfeminine, or they treat the men you beat as emasculated. It's a catch-22, you can't win even if you win.