Gamers Don’t Die, They Respawn

Note: This article was originally intended for publication in The Escapist as a response piece to Taylor Hidalgo’s piece “‘Gamers’ Are Still Dead, Y’all” and it is presented here as it was originally written last year. See this post for further details on why the piece was not published.

Games Journalists keep declaring “Gamers” are “dead” yet maybe it is them that are feeling endangered.

Gamers have no unique level of toxicity in society that would warrant special scrutiny from games journalists. Instead, discussions about the “death of the gamer” in major gaming outlets advance the agenda of a profession terrified about losing its power to an emerging class of gamers who have become an independent force in the gaming community.

I grew up with videogames as a constant part of my life. Most of my friendships as a child were built around gaming. Whether it was discussing games or playing games, few things were less central to my upbringing than videogames. So when I read pieces such as Taylor Hidalgo’s “‘Gamers’ Are Still Dead, Y’all,” I can’t help but feel bemused by this toxic gamer archetype being repeatedly flogged like a dead horse. The caricature described bears no resemblance to my own experience.

My image of gaming was not that of an exclusionary atmosphere towards girls and non-whites. I didn’t grow up in a very diverse community, yet most of my non-white peers were gamers and no one questioned it. While I didn’t know many girls who were gamers, it never occurred to me and I never heard it suggested that there was anything unusual about it. The games we enjoyed and discussed were also never limited by the gender or race of the characters.

One division that always was clear to me when it came to games, however, is that whatever one’s race or gender it was, there was always a certain type of person who was presumed to be a gamer. That type was the nerd or geek, especially those who were social rejects not in with the more popular crowds. Being a gamer was not a desirable trait, and the suggestion anyone but “nerds” and social outcasts would be into games was seen as a joke. Any spirit of exclusion from the gaming community was less about physical characteristics and more an effort to keep gaming as a safe place for the outcasts of society.

With games becoming more mainstream, people who might have once been the kind to mock or bully gamers suddenly wanted to be gamers themselves. Yet for all the talk about the toxicity “gaming’s widening horizons” allegedly brings out in “reactionary hold-outs”, this is also not something I have encountered. I’m not the most avid online gamer, but I have played my fair share and logged enough hours online to be confused by the supposed nightmarish harassment experiences others claim to have had, even while using female avatars and non-gendered usernames.

Maybe I have just played all the right games or played with all the right people. While I don’t doubt that some people have experienced hostility in the gaming community, if the situation was as bad as media reports claim, I would expect to have at least one story of seeing, hearing, or even experiencing this toxic gamer harassment first-hand. My own experience suggests to me there is not a unique epidemic of harassment. The harassment reported by many gamers, while not something I have encountered, is sadly not limited to the gaming community.

In fact, my own observation has been that toxicity and harassment are fairly consistent throughout most segments of life both online and offline. Having been active at Wikipedia for nearly eight years off and on, I saw and experienced plenty of harassment in my time on the site. Once I was dealing with a vandal adding defamatory smears to the article for the lead singer of Paramore and the vandal responded by randomly undoing other edits I made and vandalized one of my comments by adding a sexual reference.

Far worse happens to editors active on topics such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, who are routinely subjected to a deluge of rape and death threats both on Wikipedia and via e-mail. There have also been cases where editors have been stalked off-line by other Wikipedia editors. On one particularly tragic occasion, harassment of a Wikipedia editor apparently led to the editor’s suicide.

While the above all resulted in the perpetrators being banned, I and others have also been harassed by other established editors and seen those editors flipping the script to get the victims sanctioned instead. One case involving a feminist editing project on the site ended with a feminist editor sanctioned primarily for uncivil remarks towards an editor who was harassing her. The harasser had posted embarrassing information about her, which he intended to put in a scurrilous Wikipedia article. He did this in response to another editor following her around the site being sanctioned for his stalkerish behavior.

The common element is that none of these incidents relate to videogames. Harassment and toxicity are not and never have been unique phenomena in the gaming community. Steven Universe fans upset about fan-art or shipping disputes and Rick and Morty fans wanting szechuan sauce show this problem extends into general fandom as well.

Cases such as the Requires Hate user in sci-fi fandom or the Slender Man stabbing show that harassing and even criminal behavior can be done by any type of person in the name of any passion. The ongoing online battles between antifa and the alt-right that have also spilled onto the streets, show these same extreme behaviors have become a part of American politics.

Why then has no spree of outlets declared the death of Wikipedia, fandom, sci-fi, politics, or memes? After Devin Faraci wrote “Fandom is Broken” a year ago outlets largely dismissed his line of criticism. This suggests the underlying motive and intention to advance this narrative in gaming was only superficially related to their stated concerns about harassment and toxicity.

In her 2006 book The Anxiety of Obsolescence, Kathleen Fitzpatrick argued frequent declarations by authors about the “death of the novel” should be considered in the context of their source. She posts these declarations were motivated less by fears of changing technologies and more by fears of increasing variety. Fitzpatrick noted the author of one of these declarations often defended “high literature” or “serious literature” and showed disdain towards a public that chose the banality of television programming.

She expresses the position of those proclaiming the novel’s death as advocating “not a return to the cultural center but an entrenchment on the edges . . . to create a protected space within which the novel can continue as art by restricting itself to those few readers equipped to appreciate it.”

Fitzpatrick in her case argues this exclusion was partly about resisting the infusion of greater racial and gender diversity among authors as the medium expands, but she notes about her analysis that “these same anxieties crop up whenever one form of communication or expression begins to feel threatened by a newer form.” A similar threat to the old form of communication in gaming prompted the emergence of the “Gamers are Dead” pieces, to which Hidalgo’s piece is an homage.

While the controversy prompting these pieces started with a blog post connecting a games journalist and an indie game developer, it was fueled by YouTube. It was a DMCA takedown of a YouTube video discussing the ethical implications for game journalism that brought in high-profile YouTubers such as Totalbiscuit to comment. The controversy was coined “GamerGate” in a tweet linking two YouTube videos elaborating on the matter.

Online video services such as YouTube and Twitch have become a major source of news in the gaming community, directly challenging the prior pre-eminence of the traditional games journalist. In the GamerGate controversy those same services were being used to directly call attention to the failings of traditional games journalism. Similar themes mentioned in Fitzpatrick’s analysis can be found in the response of the traditional games journalist to this controversy.

Leigh Alexander in Gamasutra, decried the “gamers” as “wailing hyper-consumers” and began her piece by conveying the image of devoted fans of popular videogames carrying swag and ready to be mesmerized by elaborate marketing productions. She suggests the future of gaming lies not in this supposedly dead marketing demographic, but instead in those interested in a form of high gaming where serious games take the field.

Despite characterizing the consumerist gamer as “over”, the character she portrays has flourished. In a time where a Let’s Player is the most subscribed user on YouTube and eSports competitions are increasingly being shown on major television channels with potential recognition as an Olympic sport, it is hard to see how the “wailing hyper-consumer” is doing anything but thriving in the gaming community. The motives her and her peers had for declaring this identity’s sudden demise are even more evident.

Shortly before the coining of the “GamerGate” name, game journalism site Kotaku was compelled to add disclosure to a long list of articles written by one of their journalists, who had failed to mention her close relationship with subjects she was covering. Former Kotaku contributor Dan Golding, whose Tumblr post on the “End of Gamers” is believed to be the first on this theme, derided this action saying it was not the lesson to take from the preceding weeks and a day later offered the germ of the “Gamers are Dead” narrative in response.

Alexander, herself a former editor and columnist at Kotaku, provided her own take and this portrayal quickly spread through the rest of the games journalism scene and made its way into the general journalistic narrative. With YouTube and social media being the primary source of opposition, GamerGate became a form of proxy battle between the new and old forces in the games media.

This was their “Gamers are Dead” narrative backfiring. Golding and Alexander both effectively dismissed claims about ethics and corruption in gaming journalism as being used to mask the hostility of these gamers towards inclusion. Rather than address arguments about journalistic ethics, they attacked the messenger by presenting a strawman gamer ostensibly opposed to the diversity in the community that has always existed. Their argument was meant to discredit ethical criticism. Alexander went as far as to state: “There is no ‘side’ to be on, there is no ‘debate’ to be had.”

One common thread throughout the “Gamers are Dead” pieces was the dismissal of ethical concerns being propagated through social media, YouTube, and other Internet communities, and conflating those concerns with harassment. The fundamental purpose for these journalists wasn’t to start a conversation about gaming toxicity and changing demographics, but to end a conversation about their own ethical failings. However, the gamer was able to use these alternative platforms to continue the latter conversation without their cooperation.

Viewed from this perspective, Hidalgo’s piece reads like an empty appeal to this narrative rather than a serious attempt to replicate it. The piece is written more as a gamer’s attempt at appealing to other gamers to accept his ideals, while shaming its supposed target audience with a gamer archetype that has no basis in reality. Even though the “Gamers are Dead” pieces failed at stopping critics of games journalism’s ethical problems, who were instead repeatedly vindicated, they did largely succeed as an appeal to the old institutions of power to avoid giving ethical critics desired exposure.

As an appeal to gamers, however, this narrative serves no purpose except to enrage and irritate those whose legitimate concerns and interests are conflated with a caricature of themselves no one honestly believes is real. It fails because gamers know reports of their death have been greatly exaggerated. Far from being a dying breed, “gamers” are more powerful and influential than ever, partly evidenced by the determined efforts to “kill” them. This era marks not the death of the gamer, but its rebirth free from the constraints of its legacy institutions. That’s why games journalists are so mad.

T.D. Adler edited Wikipedia as The Devil’s Advocate. He was banned after privately reporting conflict of interest editing by one of the site’s administrators.