It’s been an ugly couple of weeks for gaming culture. Not only did the Zoe Quinn affair erupt, leading to the increased harassment and abuse of an indie games developer for the crime of being a woman in gaming, but Anita Sarkeesian was driven from her home by death threats following the release of the latest entry in the Tropes vs. Women In Video Games video series. It’s disturbing stuff to say the least and damning of geek and gaming culture as a whole that we keep having these same debates and watching the self-appointed gatekeepers of gaming attempt to chase women out of the clubhouse and off of the Internet because they dare to set foot into the “male” domain. It’s entitlement writ large – whiny children complaining that they’re not getting their every whim catered to.
And they have a point. They’re not. And that’s why the anger has grown so much hotter and the harassment has become so much more vicious. It’s an extinction burst.
We’re watching the beginning of the end of gatekeeping in gaming culture.
The Conditioned Response
First, we should define some terms.
An extinction burst is a physiological phenomenon, a way that the brain enforces its desires. It’s why so many people who try to quit smoking will suddenly have a nicotine fit so strong that they light up two cigarettes before they’ve even noticed what they’re doing. It’s why people who try to quit diet soda may be doing great for three weeks or so before suddenly finding themselves drinking even more than they had been before. And it’s why so much of gaming culture is howling and flinging shit like a death-metal festival in the Monkey House.
Much of our behavior is predicated on conditioning – essentially, training via a mix of punishments and rewards. We do something that our brain perceives as having a positive result for us on the whole and our brain doles out a reward by chemically triggering its pleasure centers. This helps encourage us to keep doing the thing that brings that positive result. When we do something that doesn’t benefit us, then we learn to avoid doing it again; this is one of the reasons we have pain receptors, after all. Over time, the things that lead up to performing the tasks that give us a positive result become part of what’s known as a conditioned response. We do these things – often without thinking – and we’re rewarded.
But when we stop doing the events that lead to the reward, the conditioned response starts to go away. Stop doing it for long enough and the behavior goes extinct… and the brain doesn’t like that. It’s gotten used to that particular stimulus/response chain and wants to keep it going. Therefore, right when the conditioned response is about to die out, it will throw out an extinction burst – a frenzy of signals demanding that the body perform the desired function right the fuck now because if it doesn’t, then the conditioned behavior is going to cease to exist. In the case of smoking, your brain has gotten used to the nicotine addiction – because brains are basically stupid – and wants you to keep inhaling toxins because it really really loves the rush. Then, when you’re almost at the point where you’ve kicked the habit, your brain turns into a toddler throwing a tantrum, kicking and screaming and yelling and spitting for as long as it possibly can until you give in just so the damned thing will shut up.
That’s what we’re seeing now in gaming culture. The myth – and it is a myth – that gaming is for boys is coming to an end. The stereotypical gamer – the young white male – is finding himself increasingly less catered to than he has been before.
And now there’s a segment within gaming culture that’s freaking out and doing its best to try to turn back the clock before it’s too late.
The Rise and Fall of Man in Gaming Culture
One of the longest ongoing myths in geek culture as a whole and in gaming culture especially is that it’s always been a “boy” thing – that women’s involvement in geek culture is a recent development. It’s a pernicious myth born of intellectual fallacies and cyclical reasoning that creates a self-perpetuating cycle; women don’t like “geek” things, therefore we don’t market to them, therefore women aren’t served by geek properties and take less part in them, therefore we don’t market to them…” Young Justice – for example – was famously cancelled because it was “attracting the wrong demographic” because “girls don’t buy toys”.
While the increased visibility of women in geek culture can be traced back to the mid-90s with the American broadcasts of Sailor Moon and Pokémon, women haven’t just been in geek culture since the beginning, they were the beginning. The first novel ever was The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu. Mary Shelly single-handedly invented the science-fiction genre with Frankenstein, while the first “masked hero” was the Scarlet Pimpernel, created by Emma Orczy. Ada Lovelace was one of the first programmers ever while – bringing it back to gaming – Roberta Williams created the graphical adventure game with Mystery Manor.
Gaming culture specifically has long been considered the province of boys only – practically since its inception. Except that’s not true. The traditional identity of “gamer” as “straight white male” is actually a relatively recent phenomenon… despite what many think.
— Kamal Noor (@KNoor1997) August 26, 2014
In her excellent piece “No Girls Allowed” at Polygon, Tracy Lien traces the history of gaming and the marketing of gaming specifically. In the first age of gaming – from the 1970s to the crash of the early 80s – games were marketed at everyone – men, women, children, everybody. After the crash of ’84 nearly destroyed the gaming industry entirely, Nintendo single-handedly revived the market with the release of the Nintendo Entertainment System… which they positioned as a toy, rather than a video game console. With the realization that the industry had been saved from the brink of destruction, the conscious decision was made to narrow the focus of games to a specific demographic: boys. From the article:
In a magazine advertisement for the Atari game Millipede (1982), a young girl stands in front of the arcade machine with her hands on the buttons, her face visibly excited by the action on the screen. An older woman, presumably her mother, stands beside her, hand on her shoulder, equally excited, a little bit awkward.
In another ad for Atari’s home computers demonstration center, a woman with red hair and brightly flushed cheeks stands in front of the center with a controller in her hands while a man stands behind her. Cheesy grins on faces, both appear to be enjoying a game of Pac-Man.
In the 1990s, the messaging of video game advertisements takes a different turn. Television commercials for the Game Boy feature only young boys and teenagers. The ad for the Game Boy Color has a boy zapping what appears to be a knight with a finger laser. Atari filmed a bizarre series of infomercials that shows a man how much his life will improve if he upgrades to the Jaguar console. With each “improvement,” he has more and more attractive women fawning over him. There is nothing in any of the ads that indicate that the consoles and games are for anyone other than young men.
Even leading up to the ’90s, the marketing had started changing and iconic video game box covers started to emerge. Like the cover of the game Barbarian, which featured a scantily clad, buxom woman at the feet of a barely clothed man. She’s not a playable character in the game, of course. Her pixelated curves can be seen watching the game’s action from the grandstand in the background. And the ad for Battlecruiser showed an attractive blond woman wearing only a bra, one finger coyly in her mouth, with a copy of the game placed in front of her crotch. “She really wants it,” the caption reads. The game is about fighting alien aircraft in space.
In a short-sighted way, it makes sense. Boys tend to be early adopters, after all, and show more overt interest in tech and gear. Boys are more likely to go into STEM fields than girls. But this is not only at a time when women were actively discouraged from “male” pursuits, it created a classic catch-22. Girls are presumed to not play games, therefore games are designed for and marketed towards boys; the marketing tells girls that this isn’t for them, therefore they don’t take part, confirming that girls don’t play games. Of course, this focus on a single demographic necessitated tunnel vision that ignored the glaringly obvious: that women were out there, that women played games and would do so in droves when given the opportunity. Myst famously outsold Doom – released in the same year – and had a dominant female player base. The Sims – another incredibly successful franchise – has long held an incredibly sizable female audience. But all eyes were focused on “guy” games – first-person shooters, flight sims, etc. which continued to dominate the discourse and definition of “what is a gamer”.
But even the most entrenched stereotypes eventually must fall to reality – and the reality is that women have not only always been a part of the gaming market, but they’re the most rapidly growing demographic. In 2009, women were the most dedicated players of World of Warcraft, accounting for nearly 55% of all hours of gametime. And just this year, women have become 48% of the gaming market; in fact, women 18 years old or older represent an even larger market segment (36%) than boys aged 18 years or younger (19%).
Another important trend is the rise of smartphone based gaming; games like Flappy Bird and Candy Crush make $50,000 and $3.5 million dollars, respectively, per day. Candy Crush, that little time-sink that we all hate to love and love to hate as it clogs up our Facebook feeds, makes $1.26 billion per year. It’s a number that certainly made developers sit up and take notice…
It has gotten to the point that game developers simply can’t afford to ignore female gamers any more or to pretend that they’re not part of the industry.
Which brings us back to the extinction event we’re witnessing.
The Fall Of The Gatekeeper
To bring things back around: for the last twenty years, male gamers have been the exclusive target and beneficiary of the gaming industry. Marketers pandered directly to a specific market – not just boys but “hardcore” gamers. And to gamers… well, gaming wasn’t just a hobby. It was a lifestyle. An identity. To be a gamer meant to be part of a small, semi-exclusive club. Gaming was uncommon. It was the domain of the geek, the dweeb, the loser, the basement-dwelling cretin. But to gamers, it was an ivory tower, a community based around a common love and a common sense of “us vs. them”.
But as time moved on, the “them” suddenly started looking a lot more like “us”. Where gaming used to be the province of the nerd, the proliferation of gaming consoles as media consoles – especially starting with the PS2 and swelling with the Xbox 360 – meant that more and more people were becoming gamers. The jocks who used to give the geeks wedgies and mock them for playing The Legend of Zelda became gamers themselves, scarfing down Call of Duty, Madden and FIFA in record numbers. Women, too, started becoming a more visible and prominent part of the gaming industry. And what does one do when your once-exclusive club becomes less exclusive? You find ways to disqualify people. You marginalize them. You say “they don’t count”. More people play Bejewelled or Candy Crush Saga or Peggle than any AAA console game… but they don’t “count” because they’re “casual” gamers. Women don’t count because they don’t play the right games; they’re playing Sims 4 or Pokemon XY, not Titanfall or Gears of War. Anything to disqualify them. Anything to make sure they don’t “count”.
Anything to keep the focus on the “us”. The “hardcore” gamers. The “real” gamers.
And for a time… it worked. Gamers were the gatekeepers. They were the chosen ones. They received the full attention and munificence of the gaming industry (minus the “doesn’t count” exceptions like Tetris, Myst, The Sims, Pokemon, Portal etc). AAA games like Gears of War and Grand Theft Auto defined “gaming”.
But time marched on and the boundaries of gaming changed. The advent of Steam and the Xbox and Playstation marketplace turned the indie gaming scene from a quirky-yet-insignificant homebrewed hobby to a potent force that people would stand up and pay attention to. The definition of what was “gaming” shifted as more and more of the enthusiast press would take notice of independently developed, less traditional games like Fez, Gone Home and Depression Quest. The rise of the iPhone and Android threw open the store to even more games that stretched the boundaries like Device 6. The casual market went from an amusing subgenre to making truly mind-boggling levels of money, capturing an audience that far outstripped the install base of the Playstation and Xbox combined. And women continued to become an increasingly important market segment – not just an afterthought to be tossed the occasional Barbie game or free-to-play horsie MMO but a demographic that can’t be shrugged off, especially as gaming revenue continues to contract. The gatekeepers were increasingly unable to keep out the others, to enforce the definitions of “gamer”. The markets changed and adapted.
Suddenly, the marketers and the developers weren’t lavishing all of their attention on Gamers. And the Gamers didn’t like that. The conditioned reflexes were starting to fade away. As the market demographics continue to change, they – by necessity – are going to go extinct. And now they’re lashing out in any way possible, trying to keep the conditions alive.
The Extinction Burst
As you watch the protests and accusations fly – along with the aforementioned death threats, hacks, doxxing, and so on – it’s important to note just how hyperbolic it all is. The so-called enemies of gaming culture are described in the most apocalyptic of terms. Zoe Quinn is a one-woman rogue intelligence outfit with a network of informants, lackeys and highly placed catspaws eager to do her bidding. Anita Sarkeesian is destroying gaming, making it impossible for games like Hitman or Dead or Alive to exist. They and their army of minions have conspired to force all of the mainstream gaming media outlets to censor any bad press against them while simultaneously destroying the Fine Young Capitalists because they’re just that evil. One “counter-insurgency” is attempting to strike back through a Patreon-funded documentary series entitled “The Sarkeesian Effect” which is totally not about Anita Sarkeesian ya’ll despite having her name attached to it. They promise to “explore how gaming and tech culture have been hijacked by Social Justice Warriors” because no violent games featuring more brown-haired white guys with square jaws and 5 0’clock shadows have been released since they failed to stop Sarkeesian’s Kickstarter. Too bad about all those games with male protagonists that won’t be coming out in October; the Social Justice Warriors have hijacked them all, yo.
The over-the-top sturm und drang is a call to arms to combat the threat of… a woman applying basic literary criticism to games. Another woman… making a pay-what-you-want Choose-Your-Own-Adventure game. Companies… recognizing that gay and lesbian gamers exist? Including playable female characters that are more than just a consumable object or a reward for the player? If it weren’t for the disgusting treatment of women in gaming culture, it’d be almost comedic.
But in a sense, it is the end of the world for the traditional Gamer. It’s increasingly impossible to change the topic. The attempts to “debunk” the Tropes Vs. Women videos by trying to nitpick them to death rather than address the content and pretend that the hate for Quinn is about “ethics in gaming journalism” are such obvious deflections and derailments that nobody takes them seriously. Instead, the message that’s being spread is about the way that gamers treat women – stories about the harassment problems in gaming culture have started reaching past gaming media and into other genre outlets such as Badass Digest and BoingBoing and even mainstream media including The Daily Beast, The Globe and Mail. Meanwhile, more and more high-profile names – both inside the gaming industry and out – have been speaking out in support of these world-destroying SJWs; among the luminaries, we’ve seen Doublefine’s Tim Schafer, authors William Gibson and Cory Doctorow and directors Joss Whedon and Rian Johnson. It gets harder and harder to pretend you’re winning the war for hearts and minds when more and more companies and names are choosing to speak out in support.
And the sad thing is: nobody’s trying to destroy games. Hell, nobody’s even trying to get rid of games where you do horrible things to female characters. As many people – including Anita Sarkeesian - have said over and over again: there’s nothing inherently wrong with liking troublesome or problematic entertainment. The problem is when that’s all there is. When it’s so prevalent and automatic that games that don’t include gratuitous sexual exploitation or fridging female characters for teh dramaz aren’t just novel but newsworthy. When nobody stops to even think about what, exactly, they’re saying. This is literally Sarkeesian’s message with the Tropes Vs Women videos – examine what you’re doing, expand your horizons. All any of these so-called SJWs are doing is making gaming more representative of its audience.
But Gamers can’t stand to see themselves not be catered to any more. They need to bring that conditioned response back. And they’ve chosen to do so by throwing a tantrum and lashing out at those women who’re supposedly about to emasculate them in an attempt to silence them and drive them away. Like I said: it’d be almost funny if it hadn’t led to women being forced to flee their homes and angry Internet mobs trying to destroy people’s lives.
The fact that we’ve reached an extinction burst is actually a positive place for gaming culture. It means that we’ve been changing for the better, that those old conditioned responses to the stereotypical gamer are going away and allowing gaming to advance. However, it also means that it’s more important than ever to reign in the misogynists and haters. It’s time to shut them down, to not let them gain traction. It’s time to squeeze out the hatred and to stand up in support of those bringing gaming into its new age.
And then, perhaps gamers can finally grow up.