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Online Harassment of Women Isn't Just a Gamer Problem

By blaming specific subcultures, we ignore a much larger and more troubling social pathology.
(Photo: rangzen/Flickr)

(Photo: rangzen/Flickr)

If there's one consistent lesson from history, it's that human beings are capable of doing awful things. Still, individual acts of violence or cruelty retain their power to shock—so much so that the first question folks ask is often not, "How do we prevent this?" or even "How can we help?" but rather, "What sort of person would do that?"

Following the recent harassment of Anita Sarkeesian, that dynamic has emerged again. Sarkeesian is a feminist video game critic; she releases sober, academically-minded videos in which she analyzes sexist tropes in popular games. Her latest, titled "Women as Background Decoration (Part 2)," was released in late August. Sarkeesian's work has created controversial reactions in the past, but this video prompted an even more vicious and ugly online backlash than usual. Sarkeesian received credible threats to herself and her family and was forced to leave her home.

Obviously, it is extreme, irrational, and completely deplorable to respond to criticism of a video game by threatening someone's life, or by flooding their social media and email with profanity or images of rape and violence. The reaction seems so extreme, so clearly disproportionate and wrong, that it naturally prompts the familiar question, "What sort of person would do this?"

The answer, for many, has simply been "gamers." A number of writers and commenters have responded to the harassment of Sarkeesian (and of game designer Zoe Quinn) by suggesting that gamers, as a group, have particular negative characteristics. "‘Game culture’ as we know it is kind of embarrassing -- ," Leigh Alexander writes. "[I]t’s not even culture. It’s buying things, spackling over memes and in-jokes repeatedly, and it’s getting mad on the internet." She goes on to argue that the future of games will be in reaching out to people who are not "these obtuse shitslingers, these wailing hyper-consumers, these childish internet-arguers." Devin Faraci takes a more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger tack, but his analysis is similar:

Let me tell you where these kids are coming from, because I used to come from there. The first thing that’s happening is that they’re mostly males who are socially unaccepted. They’re outsiders, losers, weirdos and freaks. And most of them aren’t just male, they’re white males. What’s happening is that these men are feeling powerless in their own lives, and then along comes someone like Anita Sarkeesian telling them that as white men they are the MOST powerful group in the world. And that they should be aware of this privilege and they should be careful how they exert it.

For both Alexander and Faraci, "gamers" as a class are childish, socially inept, and filled with resentment. Their misogyny and abusive behavior is a result of insecurity and a broken culture. The misbehavior is caused by a deviant identity and social position.

But is the abuse that Sarkeesian receives actually aberrant? Are gamers really behaving in ways substantially different from the abusive way people, in general, behave on the Internet? It's not really clear that they are. The abuse Sarkeesian has received is wildly unmotivated and excessive—but wildly unmotivated, excessive abuse on the Internet, especially the kind targeted at women, isn't nearly as unusual as one would like to imagine.

In April, comic critic, writer, and researcher Janelle Asselin wrote a blog post in which she civilly criticized a comic-book cover—and then, like Sarkeesian, received waves of abusive comments and rape threats. This sort of behavior is not confined to geek culture. In 2011, Mikki Kendall wrote a piece about her abortion for Salon; she was then targeted by anti-abortion activists online, and received a slew of abuse. "It wasn't the first time I got threats," she writes in an email, "but it was the most consistent & prolonged & at least one set was credible." Feminista Jones, a (pseudonymous) writer and activist who works on issues of street harassment, especially as they affect black women, has been targeted by one man with a large platform since last October. As a result, she says, she has had "dozens and dozens of his followers coming to attack me on a daily basis," using misogynist and racial slurs. She's also had multiple credible threats against both her and her son. At this beginning of this year, in a cover story for Pacific Standard, writer Amanda Hess documented her own dark abuse online as a female journalist and framed the larger problem as the next major civil rights issue.

Obviously, the perpetrators here are not "gamers,” and the problem is not some sort of childish gaming subculture, exclusive to white men. Kendall's harassers were pro-life activists, some of whom were women. Jones says most of those who attack her are "disenfranchised black men who believe the world is against them.” They see her activism against street harassment of black women as a threat to black men; some of them have even made the paranoid claim that she's a CIA plant in the pay of white supremacy. Many of the aggressors in Hess’ story hid behind anonymous Twitter accounts.

It's not surprising that commenters have tried to frame the attacks on Sarkeesian within the context of a particular identity. As Erich Goode and Nachman Ben-Yehuda argue in Moral Panics: The Social Construction of Deviance, "the key ingredient in the emergence of a moral panic is the creation or intensification of hostility toward and denunciation of a particular group, category, or cast of characters."

The discussion around Sarkeesian doesn’t constitute a moral panic, but Goode and Ben-Yehuda's argument points more broadly to the way in which we often try to deal with social, public problems by creating and policing particular identities. In his recent book The Muslims Are Coming!, for example, Arun Kundnani explains how 9/11 prompted the American government to start thinking of Muslims as a dangerous, separate group that needed to be regulated and monitored. In Playing the Whore, Melissa Gira Grant argues that "prostitute" was an identity codified by police, and that it still functions that way, inasmuch as people labeled as "prostitutes" are arrested and harassed by law enforcement just for standing on the street rather than for perpetrating any particular crime. And as Ryan Jacobs has noted here, even Juggalos, the fans of the Insane Clown Posse, have been stigmatized and policed as a deviant group, classified as a gang and harassed for wearing T-shirts or displaying band paraphernalia.

Seeing crime or violence in terms of identity is convenient; it's easier to just arrest someone for attending a mosque or wearing an Insane Clown Posse T-shirt than it is to actually track down real perpetrators. But while it's convenient, it's also fundamentally unjust. Even if you're not actually arresting or policing anyone, stereotypes are unfair. As someone whose outgoing and good-hearted 10-year-old is obsessed with video games, I rather resent the suggestion that games are somehow particularly associated with bitter, backwards, social pariahs.

Moreover, linking bad or dangerous behavior to identity can have the perverse outcome of increasing, or to some extent legitimizing, that very behavior. When you criminalize someone's identity or sense of self, you back them into a corner. While they can condemn certain actions, they can't reject their selves, so one of the only options that remains is to fight. Kundnani talks about how the U.S. war on terror effectively radicalized many Muslims, who, after constant harassment by the authorities, began to treat America as an enemy. The effort to link gamer identity to deviance has also sponsored a backlash: Some have started using the hashtag #gamergate to criticize the video game press and push back against their current portrayal in the media. Instead of trying to address the harassment of Sarkeesian and Quinn, the conversation has become one about competing victimization, with self-identified gamers using the "gamer" identity to present themselves as the aggrieved parties and attack their perceived enemies.

Along these lines, perhaps the biggest problem with seeing harassment in terms of a "gamer" identity is that it's a major distraction. Because the unfortunate truth is that online (and, for that matter, offline as Feminista Jones' work shows) misogynistic abuse is simply not deviant behavior in our society. As Mikki Kendall says: "There is a tendency (with Sarkeesian, Criardo-Perez, etc.) to assume that these threats only happen to well known light/white women because that's who gets the most media attention. But [as far as I know,] they can happen to any woman who is online." And just as there's no singular group of women targeted for harassment, there's not one group which does the harassing. You don't have to become some sort of marginal social outcast to issue rape threats. The Steubenville rapists, after all, were the popular kids.

This isn't to say that everyone in society is equally to blame. Many people, from every walk of life, manage not to issue rape and death threats to women online. But pathologizing particular identities is not the best way to approach this issue. Gamers need to address misogyny in gaming, but that is not because gamers are particularly broken or awful. It's because misogyny is a problem everywhere, and everyone needs to confront it in their own communities. Gamers aren't different than anyone else in that regard. It lets the rest of us off the hook too easily to pretend that they are.