The backlash against statements by gaming commentator Anita Sarkeesian has writer Matthew Rozsa questioning mob mentality in the digital world.
Before discussing the Anita Sarkeesian controversy – better known these days as “GamerGate” – I’d like to submit the following quote for your consideration, courtesy of one the acclaimed 1976 dark comedy Network:
“… this is no longer a nation of independent individuals. It’s a nation of some 200-odd million transistorized, deodorized, whiter-than-white steel-belted bodies, totally unnecessary as human beings, and as replaceable as piston rods…”
For the time being, let’s just add 100 million souls to that outdated population estimate and tuck the rest of the quote into some mental pocket. It’s time to move on to Sarkeesian and her online series, Tropes vs. Women in Video Games.
When I first heard about the firestorm that had been ignited in response to these videos – ranging from the predictable misogynistic slurs and efforts (some successful) at hacking her personal information to multiple rape and death threats, at least one of which is currently under investigation by federal authorities – I was understandably intrigued. While it goes without saying (at least among decent people) that this borderline psychotic harassment is reprehensible, I couldn’t help but wonder:
What manner of tinder could spark such a conflagration of hatred against a single human being?
Understandably, I expected Sarkeesian’s videos to be provocative, perhaps even groundbreaking. You can only imagine my disappointment when I was instead treated to a series of strikingly unremarkable observations and opinions.
Make no mistake about it: Sarkeesian does a fantastic job of creating entertaining and persuasive video essays. From a production standpoint alone, she is as skillful a practitioner of the format as anyone online today. Her arguments are presented with a matter-of-fact intelligence that allows viewers to focus on the material rather than the pundit’s eccentricities (a common pitfall for many Internet commenters). When judged based on how well they hold up to so many of the other “commentary videos” one can find these days, Sarkeesian’s certainly ranks among the most thoughtful and well-researched around.
The problem is that I was expecting Sarkeesian to rock the boat, to hock some proverbial phlegm in the faces of gamers everywhere – not because I harbor any malice toward gamers, but simply because there was no other rational explanation for all the hubbub. Quite to the contrary, Tropes vs. Women in Video Games covered territory that virtually anyone who has lived around video games already knows to be true: The prevalence of the “Damsel in Distress” trope in popular video game franchises like Mario and Zelda, the egregious sexualization of and violence toward women in many modern games, the paltry number of well-developed female characters compared to male ones, etc. Granted, she performs her analytical deconstruction not as a “gamer” but as a student of narrative theory. In particular, she draws on conventional feminist understandings of gender paradigms to discuss how sexist archetypes have been embedded in various entertainment media. Even there, however, her points of reference are standard fare to anyone who has taken an undergraduate course on gender theory or women’s history.
In light of the fact that Sarkeesian’s arguments, though well-informed and persuasive, are fairly rote, we are left with two disturbing implications about why there has been an emotionally violent backlash against her. The first and most obvious is that misogyny is alive and well in the gaming community, the protests of her more vociferous detractors notwithstanding. Sarkessian isn’t even the first woman to be prominently abused by sexist gamers; earlier this year Zoe Quinn, an independent game developer, was hounded by gamers after her ex-boyfriend publicly smeared her for alleged sexual indiscretions. However, given that the misogyny issue has already been covered in depth by authors like Amanda Marcotte of The Daily Beast, Adi Robertson of The Verge , and Chris Tognotti of Bustle, I’ll refer you to their articles and instead focus on the other sinister undercurrent.
We can start by looking at the hysteria. While the venomous misogyny at play against Sarkeesian is certainly disturbing enough in its own right, saying that it’s disproportionate to the actual scope of the “problem” would be a gross understatement; it is, in fact, an overreaction to a problem that doesn’t even exist. For all of the sound and fury expended against Sarkeesian, her videos have failed to pose any kind of existential threat to the video games these players so fervently embrace. At most, they complain about excessive “political correctness” and refer to gaming’s feminist critics as “social justice warriors” – claims that, notably, don’t contest the accuracy of Sarkeesian’s observations, but instead try to shift attention to the notion that she’s guilty of being too strident. More often, though, these critics simply spew bile and foam at the mouth, replete with the same sexualized slurs and violent language that have so long marred the gaming community…. All at a single voice among millions online, one which offers observations that it’s hard to believe all but the densest gamers has failed to at least notice in the past.
Again, it must be reiterated: The obvious culprit here, whether they admit it or not, is a desire among these predominantly male critics to protect a gender-based privilege they have long enjoyed in the content of their gaming. As women take up a larger and larger percentage of the gaming community (some polls suggest they’re already a majority), this outburst of misogyny deserves attention and concern. At the same time, there is a deeper phenomenon at play in how this coded hate speech has manifested itself. More specifically, the gamers who hate Sarkeesian do so for the same reason a class of young children will isolate a single classmate for persecution –at some point an irrational and intense emotion began to sweep through this like a wave, with the ones still riding it betraying an unwillingness to exercise the minimal thought necessary to not be a buoy.
This may not seem like a big deal, but it’s enough to make thousands upon thousands of men invest their time and energy for weeks on end into writing blog and message board posts that exist for no other reason than to attack Sarkeesian’s character, while thousands more participate in and/or sympathize with campaigns that have no goal besides harassing her. It is downright ominous for reasons that go far beyond video game culture and women’s rights, because what we’re seeing isn’t a movement in any proper sense of the term.
It’s an angry mob.
The mob mentality driving the anti-Sarkeesian movement is turning its participants not into temporary boors, but into permanent drones. To better understand what I mean, I refer first to the definition of “mob mentality” provided by Tamara Avant of South University – Savannah:
“When people are part of a group, they often experience deindividuation, or a loss of self-awareness. When people deindividuate, they are less likely to follow normal restraints and inhibitions and more likely to lose their sense of individual identity. Groups can generate a sense of emotional excitement, which can lead to the provocation of behaviors that a person would not typically engage in if alone.”
Of course, angry mobs have been around for at least as historians have existed to record them, and they have as often amassed over frivolous causes as they have over valid ones (at least insofar as any reason for creating a mob can be “valid”). That said, there is a ubiquitously prolonged and artificial nature to the anti-Sarkeesian phenomenon, which can be mainly attributed to the fact that its locus is online. Before the Internet allowed instantaneous worldwide communication, there were two types of mobs: Those that materialized in the “real” world of physical space and time, and those that used the somewhat less “real” medium of pen-and-paper (angry letters, newspaper crusades, etc.)… although even the latter was still constrained in some form by physical reality, be it quantities of ink and looseleaf or the constraints of time in conveying messages. While the inextricable link between discernible space-time and human connectivity was first loosened by radio and television, the Internet has practically abolished them altogether. Millions of people are now plugged into a world of 0s and 1s, hypnotically consuming a world of 0s and 1s and (unlike radio and television) directly interacting with the medium itself.
The inevitable result has been the rise of a generation that too often views the digital world not as a means unto an end, but as a self-contained end in its own right. While the flame of an angry mindless mob will burn out in due course when confined by the limits of the physical world, a similar mob that makes it home in cyberspace can survive for previous unimaginable periods of time. Instead of the inevitable cooling process, its members’ violent emotions grow hotter and hotter. Likewise, instead of slowly regaining perspective by coming to their senses as individuals, they make a habit of mimicking each other’s words, opinions, and actions until each one does little more than make a minor contribution to the monotone angry drone produced by the whole.
In the past, this sort of thing would happen all the time on a small scale. Now it happens among such large numbers, over such a massive geographical and chronological scale, and with the cover of anonymity offering relief to the cowardice so integral to the character of those who participate in such mobs, that we have reached a deeply troubling point in our cultural history – one in which the act of being a drone in a mob is mistaken for having an idea and a cause.
This brings us to the closing lines of the Network monologue from the introduction:
“The whole world is becoming humanoid, creatures that look human but aren’t. The whole world, not just us: We’re just the most advanced country, so we’re getting there first. The whole world’s people are becoming mass-produced, programmed, numbered, insensate things…”
While Network was a parable on how the specific medium of television was eroding human individuality, its message serves as an unsettlingly good fit for the anti-Sarkeesian backlash. It may not be the exact same type of dehumanization predicted in movies like Network, or in books like 1984 or Fahrenheit 451; then again, what we are seeing here is a phenomenon in which thousands of people across the globe have maintained a prolonged state of intense irrational emotion in the name of a cause as lacking in real-world consequence as the characters in the video games they play. While television gradually created a global culture in which independent thought is subordinated to the fiscal agenda of the large corporations who control the networks, the Internet has created an environment in which the kinds of mob behavior that would die down under normal circumstances are artificially prolonged… and, indeed, become more intense over time.
None of this is not being said as a criticism of video games. Like other popular forms of escapism, video games can soar to the heights of great art, intellectually and emotionally challenge their players, and offer psychologically healthy catharsis and relaxation for their users. Similarly, the fact that the medium is rife with sexism is less a reflection on video games themselves than on the culture that produces them. If the past serves as precedent, games will slowly eventually join cinema and television by providing less gender-biased content alongside its traditional fare. The fact that the organizers of the Game Developers Choice Awards have honored Sarkeesian with the Ambassador Award (which goes to individual who help video games “advance to a better place”) is as hopeful a sign as any.
In light of the hostility that has been directed toward male defenders of Sarkeesian (many of whom are derisively called “White Knights,” a term that misogynists use in the same way white supremacists refer to non-bigots as “traitors to their race”), I think it’s necessary to end this article the following statement:
I’m supporting Sarkeesian in this controversy not only because her observations about sexism in video games are absolutely right, but because no one – male or female – deserves to be harassed by an emotionally out-of-control mob. This position is born not out of ideology, but out of a quality I fear the Gamergate drones are beginning to lose: Simple human decency.