Making gaming great again

With pop culture increasingly a political battlefield, Marzena Zukowska asks Carolyn Petit of Feminist Frequency how the left can leverage the momentum of video gaming

April 27, 2020 · 9 min read

Marzena Zukowska: What sparked your interest in gaming, and how has that evolved throughout your career?

Carolyn Petit: Like for a lot of young people growing up in the United States in the 1980s, video games were an inescapable phenomenon. They were even more of an escape for me. I didn’t know the word transgender when I was growing up because no one talked about it. Every attempt I made to challenge the accepted boundaries for the gender box I had been assigned was met with tremendous disapproval. Games offered an opportunity to enter a world and be successful and heroic. It was a welcome reprieve from the ‘real’ world, in which I felt very much like a misfit or failure.

Fast forward many years. In 2010, now a trans woman, I joined the staff of Gamespot magazine. I didn’t intend to become a feminist critic but I couldn’t escape the expectations and limitations of being a trans woman in that space. In my first few weeks on the job, I saw many angry comments from readers. Their logic was that women on gaming sites should be chosen for their desirability to the core male demographic. By hiring a woman such as myself – who clearly was not hired so that guys who come to the site would find her ‘hot’ – Gamespot had essentially ‘betrayed’ their customer base.

As time went on, I would pepper my reviews with commentary on the sexist portrayals of women in games. Invariably, those criticisms were met with outrage from readers, who had learned to feel entitlement to that space and disdain for women who dared to venture into it. I realised then the extent to which video games were influencing and reinforcing a broader culture of misogyny.

MZ: ‘Gamergate’ was a defining moment for the video game industry. What exactly happened? Were you expecting it?

CP: Gamergate was a large-scale, semi-organised, violent temper tantrum designed to silence women, feminists, queer people and anyone who may have been critical of more toxic aspects of gaming culture. The fire was set off when the ex-boyfriend of game developer Zoë Quinn published a document on the internet that falsely accused Zoë of trading sex for a positive review of their game Depression Quest. The accusation was completely false and easy to disprove, but that didn’t matter.

The rallying cry for Gamergate became: ‘It’s about ethics in gaming journalism.’ However, anyone who experienced the rage of Gamergate knows that was a cloak for a hatred and maliciousness that existed long before the term was invented. Two years earlier, Anita Sarkeesian’s kickstarter for the video series Tropes versus Women in Video Games was flooded with monstrous harassment. The idea of a woman bringing feminist analysis to games was deeply threatening.

Gamergate was a large-scale, semi-organised, violent temper tantrum designed to silence women, feminists, queer people and anyone who may have been critical of more toxic aspects of gaming culture

MZ: What has been the legacy of Gamergate?

Part of it is, to some degree, having Donald Trump in office. Steve Bannon, who became the White House chief strategist, fuelled the fires of Gamergate. He hired Milo Yiannopoulos as ‘tech editor’ for the far-right website Breitbart, where Yiannopoulos wrote antifeminist pieces, including attacking Sarkeesian. Breitbart linked that ideology to broader right-wing politics. It is not a big leap from the anger of the entitled gaming fanboy to the anger of the entitled white American screaming, ‘Make America Great Again!’

Gamergate served as a kind of wake-up call telling us that all these young men who constantly play video games are absorbing toxic beliefs and taking them into the wider world as political convictions and interactions with women online and offline. We can no longer treat comic books, video games and blockbuster movies as if the ideologies in them don’t matter. The way that pop culture has become a battlefield on which we collectively are hashing out who we are as a country here in the United States – what we stand for, what we believe in – that too is a legacy of Gamergate.

MZ: Would you agree that the left has been asleep at the wheel in acknowledging the power of video games – something that the alt-right has clearly recognised for a long time?

CP: As evil as Steve Bannon is, he is tactically smart. He was aware of the ways gamers’ discontent could be harnessed to work in support of Donald Trump. I don’t think we, on the left, have yet figured out how we fight that war. Making sure that younger generations, as they start growing up and consuming comics, movies, video games, are routinely required to empathise with people who don’t look like them, or whose experiences are not the same as theirs – with queer or trans people, for example – is a crucial piece of the puzzle.

I want to be very clear that I do not believe that pop media is going to save us. Marvel or Disney are not going to save us. We, as progressives, have to make our own art. We have to fight our own culture battles. We cannot put our trust, hope or faith in multibillion- dollar international corporations – but nor can we say that representation within those spaces doesn’t matter.

MZ: The games industry recently had its own #MeToo moment. How is Feminist Frequency responding?

CP: Last year, a number of women and non-binary people simultaneously came forward with stories of the harassment, abuse or, in some cases, rape they had suffered at the hands of powerful, privileged men in the video game industry. Sarkeesian, my colleague, knew that Feminist Frequency had taken steps to tackle this issue, and to do what we can to dismantle the systems that allow this kind of abuse to take place.

In 2020, we will be launching a games and online harassment hotline, a 24/7 resource for anyone who experiences harassment – be it as a player in an online gaming environment or as an employee in the games industry – can reach out to for emotional support and help finding other resources they may need. There’s also a male ally resources and education initiative, which is designed to help men in the games industry go from being bystanders who are complicit in any abuse or harassment that’s taking place to actively intervening and helping change the system.

Marvel or Disney are not going to save us. We, as progressives, have to make our own art. We have to fight our own culture battles

MZ: Reflecting on the past decade, and seeing these shifts in the gaming industry, what will it take to ‘queer’ the gaming industry?

CP: The past decade has been a time of growing pains, strife and struggle around video games – what they are for, and who they belong to. But it has also been a decade of tremendous growth for queer representation. There have always been smaller creators on the margins making more radical games that cater to queer and trans people, or to people of colour. Some, like Dream Daddy, get mainstream crossover appeal. So queering the industry is about bringing more visibility to indie developers like Robert Yang, who makes games exploring gay male sexuality, or Brianna Lei, who made the visual novel Butterfly Soup about young queer love.

It’s also about larger studios like Blizzard incorporating queer and trans identity into their games in ways that humanise those characters, rather than using them as a source of ridicule. Or platforms like Games Done Quick that allow participants to include pronouns next to their names. It shows they are committed to normalising trans identity. They are willing to endure the hostility that a move like that is going to generate, which is a deeply unfortunate but inevitable outcome of pushing for the changes we’re fighting for.

But I’m also very wary of companies that simply want to win PR points by saying, ‘Oh, this character is queer’, but not really doing the work to explore what that means or asking players to relate to that character in the way we are asked to identify with straight characters. That’s why it’s so important that queer and trans people are part of the studios creating the games that we play and the critical apparatus at games websites and magazines. That’s how we get titles like The Last of Us: Left Behind, where one of the main characters is queer.

Carolyn Petit is a writer, editor and guest host of Feminist Frequency Radio

Join the series’ authors on April 30, 6pm, for a Lockdown Live debate: ‘Can Video Games Change the World?’ Streaming on Facebook and YouTube

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