Gaming Beyond Gamergate

At a conference for women in gaming, speakers debate the role of academics in understanding movements such as Gamergate and the harassment some scholars face.

April 28, 2015

PHILADELPHIA -- A “persistent and very terrible problem.” An “explosive harassment campaign.” An “extremist movement.” The “tea party of gaming.”

That was how some panelists at Diversifying Barbie and Mortal Kombat: Conversations about Games, Gender and Diversity, a conference held at the University of Pennsylvania on Friday, described Gamergate, the movement purportedly surrounding ethics in gaming journalism that some have used to harass critics calling for more diversity in video games. Some of those critics are feminist scholars, a popular target among members of the Gamergate movement.

The back-to-back afternoon panels of women in gaming, which included researchers, game developers and faculty members in fields such as education, sociology and media studies, were structured as though the controversy had passed. The first panel looked back at Gamergate, the other, forward. But while media coverage about the movement has declined since peaking last August, speakers stressed that questions about increasing diversity in gaming remain, and that critics are still facing harassment.

“We wouldn’t be having this conference if we were claiming victory,” said Justine Cassell, associate vice provost for technology strategy and impact at Carnegie Mellon University. “With each generation… we have new means, new people at the table. What are we going to do to ensure that these voices actually change the nature of the conversation, change the audience to whom we’re talking, change the people at the table and change the landscape for gamers and for critics of games?”

The Gamergate movement spawned from an accusation that a female game developer traded sexual favors for positive media coverage. The theory caught fire on sites such as 4chan and Reddit, causing some gamers to aggressively pursue potential conflicts of interest between the people who create games and those who write about them. For example, the Digital Games Research Association, or DiGRA, last year came under scrutiny because scholars in the same field cited each other’s work -- a common occurrence in academe.

The scrutiny has in some cases progressed to harassment, with those arguing for increasing diversity in gaming receiving threats about violence and rape and having their personal information posted online. In one example, Anita Sarkeesian, a feminist writer and target of much of the harassment, was forced to cancel an appearance at Utah State University after the institution received threats about a shooting.

Such harassment threatened Friday’s conference as well. A spokeswoman for Penn said some of the speakers had been harassed as part of Gamergate and did not wish to participate on a public panel. In the end, both panels were made open to the public, but a workshop earlier in the day took place behind closed doors.

Yasmin B. Kafai, the professor of learning sciences who organized the conference, applied for funding from the National Science Foundation to host the conference months before Gamergate reached the headlines. In the end, she said, she wished the university could have held the event sooner to discuss the underlying issues.

“What Gamergate has changed is not the situation for women and minorities in gaming, but it has changed the public perception,” Kafai said. “People who actually study gaming communities, who work in game design -- what can we promote as possible solutions and ameliorate the situation?”

Online harassment is not new, Kafai said, and neither is the debate about diversity in gaming. Some of those in attendance on Friday also participated in 1997, when the conference was known as From Barbie to Mortal Kombat. The most recent event was held in 2006. Reviving the conference with a focus on Gamergate gave participants a new chance to discuss their work, the issues related to the controversy and whether their role as academics requires them to participate in the debate.

“If anything, Gamergate has made it so you can’t really be neutral anymore,” said Adrienne Shaw, an assistant professor in Temple University’s School of Media and Communication. “Critique has become… so threatening, and that represents something about the educational system -- that people don’t understand what criticism is. That’s something we can work on. It doesn’t have to be a direct response to Gamergate. It has to be a direct response to changes in our educational system and how higher education structures people’s ability to read theoretical work.”

Gamergate, Shaw added, “makes us all have to decide whether or not we want to be public game scholars.”

Other panelists, such as Jen Jenson, professor of pedagogy and technology at York University in Canada, argued that Gamergate has already “taken our work into public in a way that none of us could have imagined.” She suggested academics use the protections that come with their positions to take an active role in the debate.

“That we have institutions behind us means that we also have the freedom to speak up and out differently than some others might not,” Jenson said. “I think that we ought to use that power to do that.” 

As the discussion topic shifted from reflecting on Gamergate to looking forward, speakers continued to emphasize the importance of communication with the gaming industry, academics who don’t play games and the general public.

Florence M. Chee, an assistant professor of digital communication at Loyola University Chicago, said academics who have been subjected to harassment can teach their colleagues about doxing (having personal information published online) and how the Gamergate movement coalesced, among other topics.

“What is innovative about it is the environment in which we live and the media environment, where it is possible to galvanize around a single hashtag,” Chee said. “It is our responsibility to understand how social movements happen with the technologies we have available.”

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Carl Straumsheim

Carl Straumsheim, Technology Correspondent, joined Inside Higher Ed in 2013. He got his start in journalism as a video game blogger for Norway's third largest paper, Dagbladet, at age 15, and has since dabbled in media criticism, investigative reporting and political coverage. Straumsheim (pronounced STROMS-hyme) boasts that he once received a perfect score on the Test of English as a Foreign Language, which enabled him to pursue a bachelor's degree in English from LaGrange College and a master's degree in journalism from the University of Maryland at College Park.

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