the video game media is garbage and #gamergate is hot garbage

I’m friends with a guy from my Chicago days who believes strongly in the need to reform alimony and child custody laws. He married and had a child with a woman who would later suffer a relapse into alcoholism and drug abuse. He went through a ton of difficult times, sticking with her through repeated legal troubles and betrayals of trust, and eventually felt compelled to divorce her. Given her continuing personal struggles, and the fact that she had placed their daughter in danger several times, along with the fact that she had repeatedly sold his stuff on Craigslist and attacked him physically, he pressed for sole custody of the daughter, with visitation rights for the mother conditional on her ability to avoid legal trouble. He thought, given her repeated arrests and demonstrable drug and alcohol addiction, that this process would be straightforward. What he’s found instead is that it’s been a terribly emotionally draining and expensive process. The family courts, as he’s discovered the hard way, are in many parts of the country still strongly inclined to award custody to mothers over fathers, even in cases of criminal convictions, drug addiction, even abuse. (Dig around, and you’ll see.) So he’s been fighting forever and it’s tough. He wants to be part of a political movement to change these conditions. Because it’s not just an injustice against men, it’s an injustice against the children who would be better served with their fathers.

(Incidentally, the presumption that children are always best with their mothers is itself based on sexist reasoning, seeing women as babymakers, and from what I’ve read a lot of this tendency comes from conservative family court judges.)

Now, here’s the hard part. The father’s rights movement (for lack of a better term) is forever getting lumped in with, and associated with, the men’s rights movement. This is a problem because men’s rights activists are as a class a pack of sexists who lament the decline of male privilege and work in defense of the patriarchy. So precisely the kind of people who need to get motivated to prompt reform — politically active, educated, progressive people — are likely to be turned off by their perception of who advocates for said reform. My friend has told me that he has searched out people online who feel the same way he does, and has frequently been discouraged by how often this effort gets wrapped up in an anti-feminist narrative, or how often people discuss bizarre revenge fantasies, etc. It’s a real problem, particularly given how tribal our politics are. I know from personal experience that many progressive people simply stop listening when terms like “father’s rights” are discussed. The associations are too grim. There’s nothing else for people like him to do, unfortunately, but to build a new movement and work strenuously to avoid those associations.

I thought of this while reading this set of reader emails over at the Dish. These emailers felt that the Dish’s previous coverage was unfair in its presumption that #gamergate is about misogyny and threats against women. They argue that there is legitimate criticism of the video game media within #gamergate. And they aren’t wrong! The video game media, generally speaking, is garbage. The problem is that #gamergate is nastier, smellier garbage, and principled people who want reform in video game media should start a new movement and reject #gamergate.

Because lord knows, there’s a lot to criticize in the video game media. Look, these kind of generalizations are inherently unfair, and there’s lots of great individual writers and pieces out there. There’s lots of good work being done. But it exists in a broader media where the bar is just impossibly low. In general, video game journalism primarily seems to involve producing hype for an $11 billion-dollar industry, churning out story after story about how cool an upcoming release is and then, on the very small chance that said release ends up with a poor review, never mentioning it again after that poor review. (Seriously: what percentage of Kotaku reviews, to pick one site, are negative? Seriously, dig around and see how many “No” reviews you come up with.) Near-corruption is a confirmed part of the business, with Youtube personalities trading early copies of games for positive coverage. And I suspect that there is even more explicit corruption going on all over the place in the industry. There are so many absurdly positive reviews, or just mainstream, established websites providing impossibly copious coverage of coming releases, that I am convinced that developers are handing direct cash payments to people who positively cover their releases. Though the stakes are much lower, there’s little different about this practice than a politician paying a reporter for positive coverage.

Even aside from actual corruption, the whole industry suffers from a rampant case of boosterism. Still obsessed with their self-conception as a denigrated minority (despite video game revenues dwarfing those of the movie industry, to pick one example), many of the ardent gamers in the video game media seem intent on acting more like cheerleaders for the industry than as skeptical journalists or critical reviewers. Aside from the fact that this allies the video game media with powerful, moneyed corporations rather than with consumers, it’s terribly self-defeating. The way that you get an art form taken seriously is not be giving it a free pass but by subjecting it to real critical review. Yes, the movie industry produces a lot of trash. But it also produces acts of real genius, and I believe that the active, meaningful criticism of film reviewers contributes to this state of affairs. You know a serious movie that is given any kind of wide release or festival run is going to receive a set of tough reviews that take seriously the film’s artistic vision and execution. Video games? I have no similar faith at all. Just gesturing in the direction of meaning or profundity, or even just saying the right things in the press tour, often brings about a rapturous reception from the video game media writ large.

40, 45 years into the age of the commercially released motion picture, we got Citizen Kane. 40, 45 years into the age of the commercially released video game, I personally feel that we’ve seen no video game of remotely similar artistic invention, daring, and quality. And that’s a shame, because video games are an artform of incredible potential, capable of being hilarious, exciting, frightening, beautiful, and genuinely moving.

But here’s the thing, you guys: if video game journalism is garbage, then #gamergate is garbage from an Egyptian restaurant that’s been baking in the sun in July in a heatwave on a New York corner, complete with extra dog poop and infested with cockroaches that have names like Misogyny and Threats Against Women. However well-intentioned some members of #gamergate may be, and however much I may agree with some criticisms of the video game media, the grimy sexism and hideous threats that have been made in the name of #gamergate renders the whole “movement” totally unpalatable to me. Yes, it is unfortunate to define any group by the actions of its worst members, and there are times in life, particularly when it comes to political struggles, that you have to hold your nose and align with people you can’t stand. But this isn’t one of those times, and too many people who complain about how #gamergate is discussed in the media refuse to be frank about how rife with ugliness the phenomenon is.

I mean, there’s even legitimate criticism of Anita Sarkeesian, such as her unpaid appropriation of other women’s artwork, which my friend Alex Layne of the brilliant site Not Your Mama’s Gamer discussed. That behavior bothers me. But in a world where Sarkeesian is subject to such insane, violent threats, my instinct is not to criticize her about intellectual property but build a bunker to defend her from attack. That’s the thing about surrounding your movement with threats and misogyny: people who might be inclined to listen to you feel compelled to reject you out of hand. Whether through refusal or inability, the principled people who consider themselves part of #gamergate have failed to eject the sexist, threatening core of the movement, and for someone like me, that makes it impossible to take the whole enterprise as anything but ugly.

But there’s no reason to despair: you can start your own movement. Start a new hashtag. Explain the criticisms of the video game media you embrace while rejecting the ugly, inexcusable elements of #gamergate. Make it clear that sexism and threats are not ever acceptable in your movement. But I really do think that you need to start something new. I don’t think #gamergate can be reformed. It sucks to have to invest that kind of effort to start something new, but that’s life. Time to get to business.