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The Digital Games Research Association (DiGRA) is under attack by critics who say academe is colluding with the mainstream media to push a feminist agenda in video games.
The association, an international group of scholars and professionals in a variety of fields, is the latest group to be dragged into the ongoing Gamergate controversy, an uncontrollable social media campaign whose call for ethics in gaming journalism has been marred by anonymity-fueled misogyny. As the movement evolves, some Gamergate supporters have pledged to scrutinize research produced by DiGRA’s members for proof that the association has been taken over by feminists.
“It’s hard to ascribe motive to a hashtag,” said Mia Consalvo, president of the association. “I think there are some people within Gamergate who are honestly interested in gaming journalism, but among the people who are really suspicious of DiGRA, there is a large group that are very anti-feminist. Some of them are probably misogynist. They’re afraid that for some reason feminists are going to come in and change their game.”
The Gamergate controversy was sparked this August after a video game developer was accused by an ex-boyfriend of trading sexual favors for positive media coverage. Since then, the movement’s twists and turns have been as convoluted as the plot of a Japanese role-playing game.
One camp within the movement has blasted video game journalists for being too close to the industry they cover, demanding that news outlets reform their ethical guidelines. But another camp has used that crusade as an excuse to harass video game critics -- particularly women (some of whom are academics) -- who have questioned whether games accurately represent and include groups other than stereotypical white males.
While the movement may at times appear scattered, supporters have occasionally been able to focus their attention to devastating results. Some of Gamergate’s critics, including media critic Anita Sarkeesian and developer Brianna Wu, were forced into hiding this fall after being bombarded with threats of violence and sexual assault, or seeing personal information about themselves or family members published online. (Sarkeesian also canceled a speaking appearance at Utah State University.) At the same time, the movement has attempted to silence its detractors by lobbying companies to pull advertisements from critical websites -- a strategy that in some cases has proven successful.
In addition to the main #Gamergate hashtag, some supporters have used the #NotYourShield hashtag to argue that the media’s focus on misogyny is an attempt to distract from a conversation about ethics in journalism.
Over the last three months, coincidences and a good helping of bad timing have sustained the movement’s relentless pursuit of new targets.
Some journalists, attempting to make sense of Gamergate, have penned obituaries for the term “gamer,” saying the word doesn’t include the millions of casual video game players who play on their smartphones on the bus to work or on Facebook at home. To some Gamergate supporters, the idea that their collective identity is dying has been tantamount to a personal attack. As the articles appeared within a short time period on websites ranging from BuzzFeed to Vice, some saw it as proof that the media was colluding against Gamergate. The discovery of GameJournoPros, a private mailing list for video game journalists and industry representatives, merely heightened that suspicion.
The quest to discover the culprit behind the articles eventually led Gamergate supporters to DiGRA.
Many of the articles cited a blog post by freelance journalist Daniel Golding titled “The End of Gamers.” Golding in turn referenced Adrienne Shaw, an assistant professor at Temple University whose research includes work on gamer identity. In 2011, for example, the communication, media and cultural studies journal New Media & Society published an article by Shaw that concluded “that those invested in diversity in video games must focus their attention on the construction of the medium, and not the construction of the audience as such.”
At DiGRA’s annual conference this August, Shaw and Consalvo participated in a roundtable session on “identity and diversity in game culture.” Notes from the roundtable were discovered online, showing how participants discussed the impact of feminist game studies on the video game industry, and whether academics could influence developers. Some interpreted it as proof that members of DiGRA were actively plotting to influence game development.
Sargon of Akkad, a YouTube user who regularly discusses “gaming, anti-feminism, history and fiction” on his channel, has fueled that conspiracy theory. The connections between DiGRA, Shaw, Golding and other journalists, Sargon argues, suggest “DiGRA is the poisoned spring from whence all of this evil flows” -- meaning Gamergate and the argument that gamer culture is dying.
“[Shaw’s] work gave the idea academic legitimacy that was then disseminated through DiGRA and probably using the GameJournoPros mailing list to orchestrate what they thought was going to be the death of gamers on the 28th of August, 2014,” Sargon says in one of the videos.
In another video, Sargon tracks the changes in membership of DiGRA’s executive board, showing how people he labels “academics” (in green text) were over the course of a decade outnumbered by “feminists” (in red text). As a result, the research produced by DiGRA board members has become “sloppy and unprofessional and absolutely overrun by people who have an ideological agenda that they simply cannot leave out of their research.”
“I’d like to show you how the Digital Games Research Association became co-opted by feminists to become a think tank by which gender ideologues can disseminate their ideology to the gaming press and ultimately to gamers,” Sargon says in the video. “This is probably the unseen driving force that ultimately triggered the Gamergate phenomenon.”
Consalvo, Canada Research Chair in game studies and design at Concordia University in Montreal, said categorizing board members into academics and feminism shows a “hostility to feminism” and “ignorance of how humanities research actually works.”
“It kind of blows your mind, and it’s like this labeling that seems to negate everything else that a person has done,” Consalvo said. “Not all of my work is gender-related, but at the same time, what they’re trying to do is say if you’re a feminist, your work is automatically discredited. You are discredited. You are not an academic.”
Sargon did not respond to a request for comment. His videos include statements imploring viewers not to contact or harass the people he discusses.
Members of the KotakuInAction community on the social network Reddit, some of whom have called for an investigation of DiGRA, shared their thoughts about the association in a thread on Monday. Several of them pointed to Sargon’s videos.
“My concern with DiGRA is that it is an anti- (or more accurately pseudo-)intellectual, ideological group masquerading as academics,” one user wrote. “They are teachers at universities in some cases, and actively try to indoctrinate their students into believing that there are discussions which should not be had, where one side should never be heard. I find it quite frightening.”
Another user added, “There is literally no way to overstate this: They are on the record in a public meeting stating that they are attempting to enact social change through video games, and to some degree they have made astonishing inroads in a very short period of time through media alliances/manipulation.”
Others criticized the peer review process used by Ada, a gender, new media and technology journal that has published articles by both Consalvo and Shaw. Article submissions are first pre-reviewed by an editor before they are opened up to open peer review by members of a group known as Fembot Collective. Critics argue that feminist scholars have used the journal as an outlet for propaganda, allowing them to avoid the peer review processes of traditional journals.
“I don’t know that I can blame them, but they have no real knowledge of how academia works, how research works, how things get published, how colleagues in academia relate to each other, know each other and cite each other,” Consalvo said. She added, “We’re not the evil empire that they think we are.”
Consalvo said she has not received any threats, but that she has heard of others who have. Personal information about her father and sister have been posted to other sites.
“One of the things that I think is sad is that we’ve worked for a long time to counter the stereotype that [people] who play games are unemployed, antisocial guys who live in their parents’ basements,” Consalvo said. “Because of all the Gamergate discourse and the threats against Anita [Sarkeesian] and Brianna [Wu], it’s kind of confirming the stereotype in the mainstream media.”
At least one paper written about Gamergate is already undergoing the peer review process, Consalvo said. Once the controversy dies down, she said, she expects many more will follow.
“Ironically, Gamergate will help create more knowledge,” Consalvo said. “If the members of Gamergate who are so afraid of feminists would actually read some of [our] work, they would question some of their assumptions.”